Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .

Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand

Read Jacqueline Lyons review of When I was Elena

An interview by John Coyne

ELLEN URBANI HILTEBRAND’s (Guatemala 1991–93) memoir When I Was Elena looks back at her time in a rural village in the guerrilla-infested mountains ofPrinter friendly version Guatemala. It tells her story, as well as the stories of seven other women in the villages where she lived. One of the aspects of this book that makes it particularly interesting is the way Hiltebrand shifts point-of-view to tell the stories of the women she befriended. In reviewing the book, Publishers Weekly noted this narrative technique: “The tectonic shifts in perspective between her amiable voice and the quietly powerful life stories of the native women she befriends result in a rich mosaic of culture and character.” This device alone makes the memoir special among Peace Corps books, giving it a scope that not many RPCVs have attempted.
Ellen first contacted me when she was looking for a publisher and I recommended The Permanent Press, a small New York publishing company that has published some of the best Peace Corps books. Ellen then disappeared and finished her memoir. It was published earlier this year.
I caught up again via e-mails with Ellen within the last few weeks. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she is the mother of two babies, as well as an art therapist who owns her own consulting company that runs therapeutic arts programs for cancer patients and their families. Her therapeutic arts work was the subject recently of an Oscar-qualified short documentary and is, writes Ellen, “fulfilling and, in fact, quite joyful.”

Ellen with
Clara and Elijah

     Some little-known, and quite revealing, personal statistics include the fact that she has duel American/Italian citizenship; once spent the night in a Honduran whorehouse (by accident, not by design); has never drunk a cup of coffee; dislocated her hip during college cheerleading tryouts; applied to be on the original Survivor (they didn’t want her, but she watched the show anyway); and considers Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner to be the books that have most influenced her life to date.
Most of Ellen’s time today is spent with her two children, 1-year-old Clara, and 2-year-old Elijah. Life has not been easy for her lately. About six weeks before her Peace Corps memoir was published Ellen and her husband separated. They are now in the process of divorcing. As Ellen writes, “Anyone who knows me from Guatemala knows Frank — we met there. They’ll all be as shocked as I am that this is happening.”
Since the recent separation, she has moved into a new home in Portland and continues to think about writing. “I have more books in me,” she says, “but heaven knows when I’ll have time to write them. I did have a beautiful writing desk built-in at my new home . . . proving that hope springs eternal, yes?” Well, When I Was Elena is one wonderful start toward that goal.

You lived in Guatemala at the tail end of a decades-long civil war, when there was continued guerrilla and army occupation of many areas. You were also there during three political coups in as many weeks. What was it like to leave a homeland of political stability and wake up the next morning to a world of civil unrest?

Surreal, obviously. Given my comparatively cloistered upbringing, there was a significant disconnect between what I saw and what I felt. The civil and political unrest that permeated the country never settled into me so fully as it settled into the people who lived their whole lives within its shadow. Though I witnessed the coups, the disappearances, those things always felt so far outside my realm of conception that I suppose I maintained a cognitive, and an emotional, distance. The fears that stalked me were of a much more personal nature — a specific person rather than a political possibility. That said, in our fears, though of an uncommon nature, I found a commonality with the Guatemalans I befriended. We all longed for safety, for security. Our socio-political affiliation didn’t matter; whether a socialist, communist, or democrat, we each wanted to walk out our door in the morning and return home at night unharmed. Our fears were a terrific unifier and, oddly, created a firm foundation where we could live together in great empathy. We realized that despite our evident surface differences, at heart we wanted the same things, and by relying on each other, we had a better chance of achieving them.

Given the backlash against U.S. foreign policy, what do you think about the Peace Corps today? And, as follow-up to that question, how prepared are you to take on the informal role of Peace Corps ambassador that is often bestowed on RPCVs who write about their experiences?


In truth, the Peace Corps is remarkably successful in maintaining an apolitical perspective, though I’d be a fool to deny there isn’t an American agenda attached to its mission. It promotes — among other things — self-sufficiency, independence, creative thinking, and a free-market economy; all cornerstones of the proverbial “American way.” This, and its relative appearance as a highly moneyed venture in the foreign countries where it serves, can leave it vulnerable to misinterpretation by the world’s poor. But the beautiful thing about the Peace Corps is that it focuses on building bridges to understanding. In opposition to diplomatic or military maneuvering, it values and promotes individual relationships with people — not just with countries or governments. The political jargon being tossed about so freely nowadays — Axis of Evil, Evildoers, Liberation, Revolution — you know who that doesn’t include? That doesn’t include Rosa, who isn’t worried about anything more complex than how to feed a family of eight with food enough for four. Or Lucinda, who has six children and a field to harvest without a husband, because he became “a disappeared” last night. Those are the people the Peace Corps exists to serve. So in answer to your question: Am I prepared to be an ambassador for that sort of ethical, forthright, people-centered American intervention abroad? You’re damn right I am.

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