I hated reading as a child. My parents, both English teachers, did their best to coax me into a reading habit. They were people who, when my six-year-old self came downstairs in the mornings on the weekend suggesting we watch TV or play a game, told me to grab a book and join everyone under the lamplight on the couches. I didn’t grow to love reading the summer after 3rd grade, when my parents had the brilliant idea that changed our lives.
But let me rewind a bit. Prior to that summer, I loathed reading. Laura, my older sister, had loved it from age three, according to family lore. She never needed cajoling, rewarding, or coercing. I was a different matter altogether. My parents tried everything to get me to enjoy what they had dedicated their lives to. They would read aloud to me every night before bed (Dad read me Harry Potter even though he hates fantasy books. That’s dedication). They would make lists of the books I completed on the back of my bedroom door so I could see my progress and feel proud. They would host “book worm” parties for me after I reached a certain number, where family and friends would come celebrate and eat my mom’s famous chocolate cake (with special gummy worm garnish). None of their creative endeavors, however, changed the fact that I didn’t enjoy reading.
Finally, that summer of my 9th year, my parents decided to try something radical: they would pay me $1 per book that I read during school vacation. As a child with an eye for money, this incentive worked like a charm. During those few months, I read 38 books. I still remember the number, almost 15 years later. And the best part was, not only did I make money, but I also learned to love reading in the process. My mom likes to joke that it’s the best $38 she’s ever spent. From then on, I was a voracious reader. What started off as a love of Pony Pals and Saddle Club turned into a full-fledged reading frenzy. I was particularly into reading throughout my lonely adolescent middle-school years. Taking a trip into Modesto for the library was always a highlight for me. I fell in love with stories.
At this point you’re probably wondering, what the hell does this have to do with why you wanted to live in Ecuador and Mozambique? Okay, I’m getting there. Books, as you know, open up new worlds. They let you see into lives you could never have dreamed of. They tell their readers about people and places and ideas you hadn’t even considered. They tell stories. Human stories, above all. I remember in high school reading books that did just that. One book that particularly influenced me was The House of the Spirits (shout out to Ms. Castellani!) The House of the Spirits was the first book I had read that was about a Latin American country and its histories. I fell in love with the saga of Clara, Blanca, and Alba through the generations of human and political change in Chile leading up to the assassination of Salvador Allende and the dictatorship of Pinochet. We read this book right around the time my Spanish class watched The Official Story, which is about the end of the dictatorship and the meaning of history in Argentina as power shifted, and I was hooked.
I wanted to learn more about Latin American stories, especially since they were mostly overlooked in other classes. Even in high school History, we had just one quarter to spend on Latin America; the rest of our time was dedicated to studying Europe and the US. The love of stories that my parents carefully sowed in me resurfaced when it came time for me to choose my major. I think that, at its core, history as a discipline drew me in precisely because of its stories and interpretations. Stories have power. What we hear in stories, both fictionalized and news stories, can and does hugely influence the way we perceive the world around us. Take, for example, how my parents listened to the news in the 1980s and 1990s, seeing the stories about Pablo Escobar and Colombia in a horrific drug war and not wanting my sister and me to travel there. Or reading about the dictatorships and disappearances in Chile and Argentina and Guatemala. Or seeing all the Latino migrant workers flood into California and right into our hometown in the Valley, desperately poor and looking for work in the fields. Movies, too, play into these same ideas as well. Yesterday, one of my Ecuadorian friends mentioned that he hated watching movies about Latin America because they were always about drugs and/or violence. Thinking back on the movies I’ve watched about Latin America (and I’ve watched quite a few), I could only think of one that didn’t exactly fit this mold. Combined, these stories meld into a single story * about Latin America–a place of poverty, violence, and war.
To be fair, these were some of the stories that initially intrigued me and compelled me to study Latin America. But when these are the only stories told and seen, Latin America becomes one-dimensional. We lose the chance to see other aspects of this place. The problem with the single story about places is not that they don’t have some truth to them, but rather that they are not the whole truth.** We learn about World War I and the Holocaust and all the violence therein in our social studies classes, but we also learn about the contributions of European intellectuals and European cultures and customs. We learn about Hiroshima and Jim Crow and Guantanamo, but we also learn about the constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the civil rights movement. US citizens not only learn about these things, but they travel across the US and to countries in Europe more so than they travel other places. We have more complete stories of these places.
For places in the “global south” like Latin America, this is often not the case. We don’t learn about the Chilean youth who organized massive demonstrations to bring changes in education to their country. We don’t hear about the Guatemalan judges who stood up in the face of great danger to convict one of Guatemala’s most horrific dictators of genocide and crimes against humanity, working to bring justice and peace to society. We don’t hear about the major progress Ecuador has made in bringing improved infrastructure to its people, making transit across the country much easier. We don’t hear about how Colombia has a mar de siete colores and selvas que no puedes imaginar and some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet. We don’t hear about the unique music that is being created that mixes salsa music with African influence and hip-hop.We don’t hear about the indigenous peoples in the jungle who preserve their traditions and their language despite centuries of European colonial oppression.We don’t hear about the families like my host family who are successful Ecuadorians, with both parents having completed university despite having a baby as teenagers and who are working unbelievably hard to educate their children and give them the best opportunities available.
And therein lies a key reason I am here in Ecuador. I wanted to hear the stories, to live the stories of this place, the ones that don’t get shared in the media. To experience the culture of a place that doesn’t have the allure Europe has and that isn’t seen as a hot tourist destination. To experience the natural wonders of a country with Andes, coast, and jungle. To forge friendships with people who are so different (and yet really not so different) from myself. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of a place not well-understood or studied by US citizens. I wanted to be able to share the stories–the good, the bad, the mundane, and the in-between–with friends and family back home. I wanted a more complex understanding of Ecuador and Latin America. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few years, it is that nothing is simple, and nothing is black and white. I wanted to learn about the greys.
Several years ago, when I was first contemplating applying for the Peace Corps after college, one major hesitation I had was that I could end up in a village in Africa. I had this image of Africa as a monolith of AIDS, civil wars, starving people, and backwardness. As a teenager, Africa felt like the last place I would want to be. But when it came time for me to fill out my preferences for Peace Corps service when I applied the second time in October, I purposefully selected three countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Mozambique was one of them. My decision had, in part, to do with stories. Africa, I believe, has even more of a “single story” than Latin America. At least in California, there are so many Latinos that US citizens have the opportunity to be exposed to these cultures if they seek to do so. There aren’t nearly as many Africans living in our cities, and moreover, we never studied African histories, cultures, or geographies. At most, we briefly touched on Africa only insofar as to mention the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, many Americans refer to Africa as a country, when in fact the continent is larger than the US, Western Europe, Japan, and India combined. It is enormous, and yet all we hear about are the worst things happening there. I am certain that there is so much more. My choice to serve in an African nation was a conscious one based on a desire to break down my own stereotypes and gain a greater understanding of a country and a people on a continent that is so often ignored or dismissed. I’m determined to learn the stories of Mozambique and share them with you.
***The term “single story” comes from this TED talk by author Chimamanda Adichie. It rocked my world. Highly recommended. You can watch here: The Danger of a Single Story