I STILL RECALL VIVIDLY that day in November when JFK was assassinated. I was a PCV in Venezuela on my way to teach a class at the university. On that day and for several afterwards total strangers approached me, simply because I was an America, to express their condolences as if a member of my immediately family had died. Bars and luncheonettes played the tapes of the funeral procession over and over again. Many Venezuelans expressed the feeling that JFKs death was also their personal loss, that they loved JFK too, and that he was their friend.
The Peace Corps meant a great deal to me.
Assigned to the University of Zulia in Maracaibo, Venezuelas second city with 500,000 people, meant living in an urban area not your typical PC post. Much of Venezuelas oil is located nearby which meant that this was not a community that had ever seen Americans.
Learning the language and becoming familiar with local customs was a frustrating experience. For example, shortly after arriving, two volunteers who met during training were to be married. I and another volunteer went to the town hall with them to be witnesses at the civil ceremony. It turned out that we signed the forms on the wrong line. Instead of becoming witnesses we had declared ourselves as their illegitimate children.
One local shopkeeper found it difficult to understand why I was there. As a bright young American, he felt I could be earning a nice living and building a career at home instead of being there, living in poor conditions. It took many months to convince him that I had a genuine commitment. He then saw me as an idealistic young American.
A communist group in the university pegged us as CIA and ran a poster campaign against us one read: Peace Corps Volunteers, Go you to your home. The effort turned out to be minor and symbolic. Many others strongly reassured us that our presence was appreciated and that we should stay. Eventually leftist reservations subsided and some of us even wound up working side by side as colleagues with those who had been responsible for the campaign.
After passing the early hurdles and settling into a daily routine we became frustrated when thinking about the long-term value of our contribution. What difference could we make in the short time that remained. So what if a few more Venezuelans learned a little more English. After much soul searching, I expanded my efforts beyond university teaching. I realized that perhaps that my most important role was bringing groups together and calling attention to problems which I could not solve but which socially conscious Venezuelans could begin to confront as a group.
I taught classes which included both students and professors although they were accustomed to having separate classes. I encouraged students and professors to visit my home in a local slum realizing that especially those from the medical school, could deal with many health problems in that poor neighborhood. With some difficulty, I attracted them to my home for a discussion group, and the direct exposure to severe health problems did lead to group action.
On one occasion, I went looking for furniture at a local prison workshop and wound up discussing the purpose of the prison with the head warden. He stressed punishment and I asked what was being done to rehabilitate the prisoners who will eventually re-enter Venezuelan society. He thought this way of thinking was progressive which in retrospect made him somewhat progressive himself. In short, I was invited to give English classes in the prison. The inmates liked the idea. Many were bright and frustrated by their dull existence in the prison. I recruited university students to teach at the prison and we established a School of Re-Education, eventually getting approval for an accredited high school program.
The prisoners could not understand why an American would teach English in a Venezuelan prison. They decided that I must be a sociologist interested in how the prison operates. I did not discourage their interpretation. They in turn organized sessions for me to describe and analyze how the prison operated both officially and off-the-record. I was given lectures and tours and on my departure was honored with a personal concert by the prison chorale.
Another time, a blind university student led me to the state blind association where working with a small dedicated group, we convinced the Governor to donate a Volkswagon bus to transport children, and the Shell Oil Company to donate a house to serve as a program center. The group then identified blind children in the community who were transported to the center where we set up a program of the blind leading the blind. Blind adults taught blind children to read Braille and then other academic subjects and vocational skills.
While I was assigned to a university teaching project, the work with the prison and the blind association and the student-professor discussion groups are examples of how as a PCV I could reach out and involve university people in providing services to the larger community. This shows the kind of impact that PCVs have had since the beginning. PCVs are catalysts who are able to create bridges among groups within the country they serve, as well as between the U.S. and the Third World.