January 9, 2005: Headlines: COS - Guatemala: Marriage: The Ledger: RPCV Mark Swisher is an Ohio native, but his Guatemalan wife left her entire family back in Central America.

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Guatemala: Peace Corps Guatemala: The Peace Corps in Guatemala: January 9, 2005: Headlines: COS - Guatemala: Marriage: The Ledger: RPCV Mark Swisher is an Ohio native, but his Guatemalan wife left her entire family back in Central America.

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RPCV Mark Swisher is an Ohio native, but his Guatemalan wife left her entire family back in Central America.

RPCV Mark Swisher is an Ohio native, but his Guatemalan wife left her entire family back in Central America.

RPCV Mark Swisher is an Ohio native, but his Guatemalan wife left her entire family back in Central America.

Guatemalans Are Drawn to Polk County
Educational and Family Opportunities

By Julia Crouse
The Ledger

Caption: Gary Swisher, a 20-year-old native of Guatemala who is a graduate of George Jenkins High School, attends Warner Southern College in Lake Wales on a soccer scholarship. Watching Swisher practice his soccer skills is his father, Mark Swisher. RICK RUNION/THE LEDGER

Ingrid Penedo has the luxury of seeing a sunset every day. In her native Guatemala, Penedo had to drive a few hours west to catch a Pacific Ocean sunset or another three hours east for a Gulf of Mexico sunrise. The mountains surround Guatemala City, her hometown, cutting off the view of the sun on the horizon.

"If you wanted to see a sunset, you had to travel," she said. "I now have the luxury of having a sunset every single day."

Penedo and her family shipped their lives across the Gulf to Florida 14 years ago to give their children more opportunities.

Here, life itself isn't too different from their lives in Guatemala, Penedo said.

But there is greater freedom and chance for success in America, said Penedo, who moved with her family in 1990.

They lived with her in-laws in Kissimmee, but the city was growing too fast for Ingrid Penedo's taste. She wanted a house farther away from neon lights and the tourist spots of Disney World, she said.

In Davenport, she found a neighborhood where her kids could play outside and it was only a quick drive to shopping and city life.

In doing so, she joined a growing Guatemalan community in Polk. With only a couple dozen Guatemalans living in Polk 15 years ago, nearly 300 native Guatemalans now make their home in Polk, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The Swisher family also moved to Polk three years ago. It settled in Lakeland because it was a bigger city than Wauchula, where Mark Swisher works, but not as fast-paced as Orlando or Tampa, he said.

Mark Swisher, a manager at Mancini Packing Company in Wauchula, moved back to the States nearly four years ago because of his job. His wife, Gladys, and children Gary and Nicole, then 17 and 7, followed a year later. Their oldest son, Luis, still lives in Guatemala.

Life here is fairly similar to life in Guatemala, just faster-paced, said Gladys Swisher. "Here you are on the go, on the go, on the go," she said. "Every day you have something to do."

Here, Penedo said, she also has the freedom to choose from a number of different jobs despite her age.

Age is a major obstacle for job hunters in Guatemala, said Penedo, 46.

Once a person hits 35, they must be set in a job or really good at what they do to find a new position. And going back to college for a new career is practically impossible, she said.

Penedo is going back to school at Volusia Community College to earn her associate's degree, she said.

Eventually, she'd like to work as an administrative assistant. But while her youngest son is still in school, Penedo is taking her time with one class per semester.

"My life is not ended," she said. "I can go on and live for myself."


The hardest adjustment to life in the United States was giving up a strong familial support system in Guatemala and caring for the family alone, Penedo said.

In Guatemala, Penedo and her husband both worked full-time, as they do now. But they lived with her parents and employed a maid to clean, cook and watch the kids.

Here, she and her husband, Victor, learned to do it all by themselves.

"We learned what family is," she said. "There was nobody else but us."

But in taking on the myriad responsibilities, Penedo became much closer to her children, Manuel, 18, and Victor, 17. Their oldest son, Estuardo, died in a car crash about a year and a half ago, when he was 21.

Penedo and her husband worked out a schedule so one of them could be at home around the clock. He worked nights as a Disney World waiter and Penedo worked during the day as a secretary.

"We've learned to appreciate the time we have together," she said.

The Swishers also moved away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Mark Swisher is an Ohio native, but his Guatemalan wife left her entire family back in Central America.

The two met when Swisher was working in the Peace Corps 27 years ago.

Gladys Swisher, who has a teaching degree, was working as a secretary and Mark was a manager of a different company, he said.

After the two were married, they returned to the United States for a little more than a year while Mark earned a master's degree in business administration from Thunderbird, an international business school in Arizona.

Afterward, the Swishers moved back to Guatemala, living in several cities. Most recently the family lived in Guatemala City.


Most of Penedo's immigrated family eventually settled in Georgia. But her sister still lives in Kissimmee, and the two families get together nearly every weekend.

Seeing her family regularly helps Penedo, who wants to pass on Guatemalan traditions to her kids. But being the youngest in a family of six, she has to rely on her older sister and brothers to teach her the traditions.

One of her favorite customs is Noche Buena, or Good Night, on Christmas Eve.

In Guatemala, Christmas celebrations begin very late on Christmas Eve. Everyone stays up until midnight to celebrate with a large feast full of Guatemalan goodies -- tamales, empanadas, and a fruit punch called ponche -- and fireworks and presents.

Together, the family also places a palm-sized baby Jesus, bedecked in an elaborate outfit, into his manger bed.

The Swisher kids, Gary and Nicole, say they miss the Christmas celebrations most about life in Guatemala.

"The holidays are the days when you miss your home country the most," Gary Swisher said.


Adjusting to life in English also was difficult at first for both women.

Ingrid Penedo learned the rudiments of the language while living in Guatemala. But her accent was off because her teachers in Guatemala hailed from England.

Her kids, ages 3 to 7 when they moved here, picked up the language right away, she said.

Gladys Swisher still has a difficult time speaking English, but understands most of what people say.

Her children grew up speaking English with their father and in private schools, where they were taught extensive English, Mark Swisher said.

High school in Lakeland was vastly different in Guatemala, said Gary Swisher, who was 17 when he moved here.

He attended George Jenkins High School, which, at nearly 2,000 students, is about four times the size of his old school.

Plus it was much more diverse with students from all over the globe, he said.

"At the end it will be better for us, a better education and a better lifestyle" Gary Swisher said.

But life was more than bearable once he and his sister incorporated their favorite Guatemalan pastime -- soccer.

Gary's older brother, 26-year-old Luis, plays soccer professionally on the Guatemalan team.

Gary Swisher, now 20, earned a scholarship to play soccer at Warner Southern College in Lake Wales, where he is a business major. His sister, Nicole, also has soccer in her blood and plays forward in a girls' league.

"My brothers taught me lots of moves," she said. "So I get to score lots of goals."

The Swishers haven't made the trip to Guatemala since moving here three years ago. But they run up a hefty phone bill each month.

"With the Internet, it's a lot easier to keep in touch, especially with our son," Mark Swisher said.

Since moving to Polk County, Penedo and her family have gone back to Guatemala at least once a year. About a year ago, she brought her parents here for a visit.

Penedo enjoys returning home for a time, but one of the most exciting things she hears is the airplane pilot announcing their descent into Miami.

Penedo earned her citizenship in 2000, and her husband earned his soon after moving here.

"I made up my mind to stay here and live here," she said. "As a citizen I have the right to vote and be part of this country."

Because Mark Swisher is a native-born American, the Swisher family doesn't need to fill out the paperwork necessary for citizenship.


Regardless of how much these immigrants love Central Florida, the climate has taken some getting used to.

Guatemala is comparable to North Carolina's moderate climes, Penedo said.

It is a mountainous, tropical region with humidity in the lowlands and cooler air the higher you go.

When she first moved here, Penedo said she was shocked that people wore shorts and T-shirts everywhere they went. In Guatemala, she said, folks dressed up in nice slacks and shirts to go shopping, for a walk or anything outside.

But the first time she walked her child to school on a hot August morning, Penedo realized why Floridians dress the way they do. In pants and a blouse, Penedo said she thought her legs would blister she was so hot.

"It took a long time to get used to (the heat)," she said. "Now, I cannot live without air conditioning, I would die."

Mark Swisher said it gets much colder here during the winter than it does in Guatemala.

"Guatemala is often called the land of eternal springtime," he said. The temperature typically hovers in the 70s, rarely dropping or rising.

Penedo said she also misses the mountains and volcanoes. But the rocky heights did limit the number of sunsets she could see.

"I love the sunset here."

Julia Crouse can be reached at julia.crouse@theledger.com or 863-802-7536.

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Senator Norm Coleman, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps, says in an op-ed, A chance to show the world America at its best: "Even as that worthy agency mobilizes a "Crisis Corps" of former Peace Corps volunteers to assist with tsunami relief, I believe an opportunity exists to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Peace Corps and its expansion to touch more and more lives."
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Breaking Taboo, Mandela Says Son Died of AIDS 6 Jan
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Persuading Retiring Baby Boomers to Volunteer 6 Jan
Inventor of "Drown Proofing" retires 6 Jan
NPCA Membership approves Board Changes 5 Jan
Timothy Shriver announces "Rebuild Hope Fund" 5 Jan
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Poland RPCV Rebecca Parker runs Solterra Books 2 Jan
Peace Corps Fund plans event for September 30 Dec
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Story Source: The Ledger

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