Prof. Slatta's Reflections on his Peace Corps Service, 1969-70
Earlier version published in American Diplomacy, 21 Mar 2011
Summer 1969: Within days after receiving my BA in history at Pacific Lutheran University, I found myself in the intensive study of Spanish and Latin American culture in the lush mountains of Puerto Rico. I won't detail the bodily challenges during training and service, but I finished mean and lean. Two months later, the Peace Crops dropped me into a squatter settlement [barrio] outside Panama City, Panama, I quickly began learning and adapting more than I've ever done before or since. I now know this immersion provided experiential learning on steroids. It took a couple months to get my Spanish-language brain and tongue to work together. Working side-by-side with recent migrants to the city from rural Panama provided daily lessons in the strength of the human spirit. Poor but determined to improve, these hardy folk rarely faltered--and they worked unfailingly with and for one another. We worked communally, building humble houses, footbridges, digging latrines, throwing potluck fiestas to raise funds for community projects. As my Spanish improved, so did my abilities shoveling sand and mud, pounding nails, and swinging a machete.
More than a dozen other urban community development volunteers served in adjoining settlements, so we cooperated to build wider networks. The populist government of General Omar Torrijos supported our efforts, and soon the 70,000 squatters had their own community assembly. I worked with and tutored a friend who became an assembly rep. Beyond the tangibles, such as roads and potable water, came the pride of self-empowerment. Together, people of meager means, can achieve a great deal--a powerful lesson for them and me. Community development works, whether in Panama or, as President Obama showed, in Chicago.
Traveling through South America during our vacation days, we witnessed a great deal, but several things stand out. (1) Our Panama neighbors were hardly alone in their poverty and marginal living conditions. We saw it everywhere. That observation prompted a question: WHY? These people did not fail; the capitalist philosophy of trickle-down economics failed. In systems created and rigged by the rich, wealth percolates up not down--the rich get richer. (2) Systems, institutions, and ideas need changing--as Pope Francis as forcefully suggests. (3) We experienced the vitality, diversity, and richness of Latin America's many different cultures and places. Now, almost 50 years later, it remains a favorite region to visit, although a love for snorkeling among coral reefs has moved the Caribbean up the rankings.
Like many returned volunteers, I took up a career in education. Translating what I learned as a volunteer into lessons for college students has been yet another rewarding experience. Like many volunteers, I have a sense of guilt about all I learned, how much I grew, and how little I could actually contribute to bettering the lives of poor people in Panama. I now try to encourage others to take up the fight.
Richard W. Slatta Panama XVII