Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Bolivia

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is 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, it poses challenges. In Bolivia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ lifestyles, behavior, 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 Bolivia.

Outside of Bolivia’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Bolivia 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 Bolivia, 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 your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Bolivia

The Peace Corps staff in Bolivia 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 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.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Gender roles in Bolivia are markedly different from those in the United States. Most Bolivian women, especially those in rural areas, have traditional roles: They run the household, prepare meals, clean, and rear children. Many women also work in the fields, run small businesses, and care for farm animals. Men also have specific roles, and “manliness” is considered very important. Although many Volunteers are bothered by these gender roles, it is important to understand them to be effective in your work.

It is not uncommon for women to receive stares, unwanted sexual comments, and offers of dates on the street or in other situations. Female Volunteers are obvious targets because they often look quite different from Bolivian women. Female Volunteers must learn how to handle these situations and sometimes have to accept constraints on their behavior that male Volunteers do not face.

Male Volunteers also encounter harassment, though less frequently. If you do not drink, smoke, or like to pursue women openly, you may be teased about not being manly enough and pressured to participate in these activities. Male Volunteers who cook, wash clothes and dishes, and clean the house may seem strange to their neighbors.

All Volunteers have to adjust to the gender norms and different ways of doing things in Bolivia. Pre-service training will orient you to these norms and customs.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Volunteers of color may encounter verbal harassment on the street-especially when away from their sites in larger towns or cities. African Americans may be mistaken for Brazilians. Asian Americans may be called “chino” or “china” even if they are not of Chinese descent. However, comments or jokes regarding race or ethnicity are more likely to be made in a descriptive sense than in a derogatory sense, and most Volunteers of color are able to cope with them. For Anglo Americans who have had little experience with being the only one of their kind in a community, being the center of attention because of one’s nationality, regardless of race or ethnicity, may sometimes feel uncomfortable.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

Extended families are an important aspect of Bolivian culture, and maturity and age are generally respected. Because Volunteers tend to be in their 20s or 30s, however, senior Volunteers often find developing a peer support system within the Volunteer community a challenge. Many seniors with little or no prior foreign language experience also find learning Spanish to be difficult. We highly recommend that you begin studying Spanish before your arrival in Bolivia.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

As in many other Latin American countries, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals do not enjoy the degree of understanding and acceptance they have come to expect in the United States. Some gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers feel isolated because their opportunities for self-expression in their community and workplace are limited. Peace Corps/Bolivia is committed to providing an open forum for communication and peer support for gay, lesbian, and bisexual

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Spiritual practice is a strong aspect of Bolivian culture. While the majority of Bolivians practice Roman Catholicism, there are a growing number of Evangelical Christian congregations. There is also an active Mormon community, as well as small groups of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious faiths, in several of the larger cities. Most Bolivians in small communities have had no exposure to non-Christian religions.

Peace Corps/Bolivia encourages Volunteers to continue practicing their religious observances in a way that is sensitive to the specific circumstances at their site. But while adhering to your faith is encouraged, Peace Corps policy strictly prohibits proselytizing or missionary efforts by Volunteers during their service. It is especially important that Volunteers not align themselves with any specific religious group in their work and instead develop cordial working relationships with leaders from all religious groups in their communities. In some communities, a rivalry has developed between Catholics and Evangelicals, and working with only one religious group could seriously damage your effectiveness as a Volunteer.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

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, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Bolivia without unreasonable risk of harm. Peace Corps/Bolivia 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.

That being said, Bolivia can be geographically, physically, and emotionally challenging for anyone. Trainees with disabilities must be pre-approved by the Peace Corps/Bolivia medical officer to ensure that appropriate site placement options and medical services are available to accommodate them, and therefore may be restricted to certain areas of the country despite their personal preferences. Co-workers and community members may be standoffish or curious about disabilities, but Volunteers who are willing to candidly respond to questions, and to demonstrate that they are capable regardless of their disability, are likely to gain their community’s respect and acceptance.