Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand (page 2)
 Talking with
Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand
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You write of the damaging impact of U.S. military involvement on local villagers in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Having seen firsthand the effect on the lives — and attitudes — of the civilians this intervention was meant to benefit, what consequences do you foresee as the result of current, similar U.S. policies in other parts of the world?

You can pick up a newspaper in any city in this country, on any given day, and read about the sad, but typical, turn in sentiments that those who have been “saved” experience when they start to perceive the liberator as equivalent to the oppressor. But in a letter I recently received from John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, he touched on a consequence of foreign military intervention that I think few people have fully realized. In reference to his own experience in Guatemala, he said: “In general, it’s probably a major crime for our imperial government, or country at large, to be sending its blond, blue-eyed do-gooders to our starving satrapies around the globe. What I learned in my brief adventure as a blond, blue-eyed representative of the United States was to never again visit a Latin American (or other Third World) country as anything other than a person actively protesting the United States’ economic, cultural, political, or environmental policies in that country and elsewhere.” His observation is a keen one, and aligns with my own perspective. I think one of the major, yet relatively undiscussed, impacts of current U.S. foreign policy is that it is endangering Americans abroad. One is no longer safe if recognized as an American in many parts of the world.

Why do you think the Guatemalan culture hasn’t significantly changed or modernized despite ongoing international aid?

In Guatemala

Quite possibly because there was nothing wrong with the culture that needed changing in the first place. Not that I don’t think there is great merit — and one could argue need — in eradicating certain preventable diseases, in establishing and maintaining hygienic living conditions, etc. But the international aid that is introduced in countries like Guatemala is often determined and delivered based more on the perceived needs of the giver rather than the receiver. For example: Do children learn better in enclosed concrete buildings than they do in open-air huts? My experience has been that the structure has little impact. But show most Americans a picture of poor children studying in a bamboo lean-to, and they will lament that the children need a schoolhouse. So an outsider intervenes, with a full heart and good intentions, and builds a schoolhouse out of imported materials that can be neither repaired nor replaced when the benefactor leaves, and the recipients are never again satisfied with the lean-to that had served their needs adequately before they were convinced otherwise. The real question, the hard introspective question, should be: Whom does this type of aid truly serve?

You had to work hard to overcome many Guatemalans’ preconceptions of you, and Americans in general, based on images they’d been fed through television and movies. What is your perception of the way America represents itself to rest of world via pop culture and the media?

The country I live in, and the one Guatemalans perceived me to have come from, are two dramatically different places. The Hollywood world of all sexy, all pretty, and all wealthy has never been a reality for me, yet it was a mien I could rarely escape from during my years abroad. Regular folk like myself are — at best — done a disservice by the glamorous images foisted upon poorly educated populaces; these people have no reference points allowing them to distinguish between the fantasy of film and the reality of life in the United States. What Americans consider to be escapist entertainment is considered by most Guatemalans to be a fact-based primer on life in America. That is our fault, for we have only rarely provided them with a more honest picture of ourselves. At worst, when held accountable to that distorted, typically sexualized image, it can result in real personal harm, especially to women, as detailed in When I Was Elena.

What were your preconceptions of Guatemalans before you arrived in-country, and how successful do you think you were in overcoming them?

I knew very little about Guatemala before I arrived, aside from a few glimpsed images in magazines extolling the landscape and the quaint nature of indigenous life. But let’s be honest: A life of abject poverty isn’t quaint anywhere, and since 99% of the Guatemalan population — including the entire indigenous population — lives in poverty, that notion got dispensed with pretty quickly. Other things I never fully adjusted to. I still fail to understand why, beset by the same level of poverty, some people choose to live as neatly, as cleanly, as possible, while others allow themselves and their surroundings to deteriorate. I hated the machismo; the sense that in many men’s eyes I was nothing more than a sex object. And while the slower pace of life is something I struggled to embrace at first, but then did fully, the plodding pace of business and government left me consistently stymied. None of these things are entirely unique to Guatemala, however. Those characteristics that are unique to Guatemalans, the traditions and superstitions, the daily rituals, the cariño of the people — those are the things I loved.

Why did you decide to join the Peace Corps in the first place?
My motives were entirely selfish. I wanted to learn a foreign language. I wanted a novel adventure, and knew there would be few other times in my life when I’d have the opportunity to step out of my typical life and take off for an unfamiliar place. And I felt — in the way only a naïve, presumptuous 22-year-old can — that I already knew my own country well enough and could learn more by moving abroad. On that count I was both right and wrong: I wouldn’t trade the lessons Guatemala taught me for anything, but there was, and still is, much to discover about my homeland.
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