An African-American Volunteer in Nicaragua

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An African-American Volunteer in Nicaragua

An African-American Volunteer in Nicaragua

An African-American Volunteer in Nicaragua

Oct 1, 1999 - World & I, The Author(s): Lewis, Mark H

From a career perspective, compared to many of the friends I had grown up with in south-central Los Angeles, I was doing relatively well. I was comfortable with my accomplishments as a university- educated African American and the fact that I had not lost touch with my old neighborhood. I would hang out or play basketball with the guys in southcentral on the weekends and go to work in white shirt and tie during the week By most standards of success, had made it.

In the mid-1990s, I decided to give up the cultural and material comforts I had accumulated from working in corporate America (as an IBM marketing representative) to join the U.S. Peace Corps program in Nicaragua. It was interesting to see the "I don't believe you" reactions on the faces of friends and acquaintances told of my decision. Why would I give it all up to go live in a Third World country? (Now, I get similar reactions of disbelief from my Peace Corps friends when I tell them-with some hesitation and embarrassment- that I have bought a Lexus. )

Many of the questions from my neighborhood friends came from racial, social, and economic perspectives. "Why do you want to go over there to help them, with so many unsolved problems here?"

"Why don't you go help Africa?"

"Why go where you might be viewed as a second-class person?"

For an African-American male like myself, those questions took on added dimensions and significance. Some were aimed at determining if I had an identity problem. Others implied that I might be selling out my people for another. Others suggested I might be bailing out of the difficulties confronted by black people here in the States. Each made me probe and rationalize my decision to go to Nicaragua.

I explained to family and friends that I would be helping other people with limited opportunities. I would also obtain language skills, personal growth, and a different perspective on our world in exchange for my time and talents. The outlook I had gained from my hood was limited. I recalled a sentence from the book I Wonder as I Wander, by AfricanAmerican author Langston Hughes, that had once caught my attention. While in France, Hughes wrote, aMy interests had broadened from Harlem and the American Negro to include an interest in all the colored peoples of the world-in fact, in all the people of the world, as I related to them and they to me."

I desired that kind of perspective. My decision made, I arranged to spend over two years in Nicaragua. This past May I returned for a three-week vacation, and now, to help with volunteer relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, I have accepted a one-year posting as Crisis Corps coordinator for the country. As with my previous visits, I expect this experience to teach me as much about myself as about those I encounter.

Experience in a foreign land

My first days in Central America were stressful. One such situation occurred when I was hanging out with some of my newfound Peace Corps friends. We were standing in line, waiting to enter a fiesta (dance) in a small town near the capital of Honduras. We were all eager for this first opportunity to party with the local people.

I had already experienced feeling somewhat privileged by being a North American. Most people in this village seemed to respect the United States and the perceived "good life" it offered. I followed another male member of our group as we approached the entrance. But when it was my turn to enter, the security guard at the door who took my ticket would not let me pass. I was directed off to the side, away from the door, told to hold my arms in the air, and given a complete patdown search.

It reminded me of the kind of treatment I had received as a teenager, hanging out on a corner late one night in my Los Angeles neighborhood. I was pissed! Why me? Why was I the only one of my group singled out for this treatment?

After about thirty seconds, I was allowed to go inside and rejoin my friends. I asked if anyone else had been stopped or searched. They all said no. So why, I wanted to know, was I singled out? I could think of only one reason. The only differences between myself and the others were my facial features, hair texture, and skin color.

I didn't want to take the easy out and complain that it was a racial issue, but from everything I understood about discrimination, this was it. I stared at the men guarding the door. They let another fifteen to twenty people enter without searching anyone. Then I spotted another guy being pulled to the side and frisked. This was interesting. This man looked like an average, brown-skinned Central American.

In my best "Spanglish," I asked a local I knew why this particular fellow was being detained and searched. From what I could understand, the men guarding the door were searching anyone they viewed as a potential risk, someone "not from around here." Had the guards been aware of my U.S. citizenship, I might have warranted different treatment. But I don't know if they would have believed me if I had protested. They surely had their own stereotypes of what a North American gringo should look like. (The term gringo may be applied without distinction of color, I have since learned.)

My experience was by no means unusual. Many of us "gringos" traveling or living in the developing countries of Latin America have stories to tell, in which we have suffered from someone's lack of perspective and understanding. But that incident and others of lesser intensity have granted me greater understanding than that gained by being a person of color in the United States.

There are positives and negatives to living in a country where you can "pass" as a native citizen. People of color from the United States, traveling in a foreign country populated by other people of color, can have the best of both worlds. Nicaraguans of color (of either African or Native American descent) readily accepted me and invited me to participate in their lives and social activities. They accepted me not so much as a novelty but as a distant relative wanting to connect to their lifestyle and culture. I experienced a closeness and bonding that I imagine is similar to what Caucasian Americans experience in travels to Europe.

I was sometimes mistaken for a native from their Caribbean/ Atlantic coast regions. Usually, people didn't particularly notice me walking through outdoor markets or in less-developed city barrios (neighborhoods). I was able to get relatively good prices on goods, services, and taxi fares. The Latinos of the lower socioeconomic classes seemed to view me as one of them, or just like them. In general, the people I met were surprised when I revealed that I was a U.S. citizen. The downside of being perceived as a native Nicaraguan was that many times I would be given special attention by security guards at business establishments catering to foreign tourists.

I felt the greatest challenges for me would be culturally based. My exposure to Mexican culture in California did aid my adaptation to the Latin/Mayanbased culture of Nicaragua's Pacific coast. But I felt out of place socially. It took me some time to appreciate merengue and salsa music and dances. My language skills were improving, although not enough to engage anyone in meaningful, lengthy conversation. I found some relief upon meeting a few Afro-Caribbean or Creole Nicaraguans on Managua's public basketball courts. They spoke a Jamaican style of English and introduced me to Mansion de Reggae, a disco that played calypso and reggae music.

Mansion de Reggae became my cultural haven. I could retreat there when I felt frustrated, or when I just wanted to let my hair down.

Nicaragua's Creole culture

After discovering Mansion de Reggae, I decided to visit Bluefields, on Nicaragua's Atlantic/Caribbean coast. There was little tourist literature on the city, but everything I read confirmed that it was the center of Anglo-Creole culture in Nicaragua. (During the colonial period, the British controlled much of the east coast of Nicaragua.)

I traveled perched on the edge of an aisle seat in an old school bus crammed with people, luggage, furniture, and chickens. There is airline service to Bluefields, but I had chosen to travel cheap. The bumpy ten-hour ride mercifully ended in Rama. The city is named after local Indians whose language and culture have disappeared, due to absorption into the dominant Latin culture. The trip's final leg concluded with a two-hour ride on a small, single-engine panga (open- top boat). We jetted down the Escondido River, wide and banked by banana trees. The rush of cool air and spray of fresh water quickly helped me forget the previous ordeal.

I was not surprised by the heat and humidity of Bluefields, but I was disappointed that I heard few people speaking Creole English as I walked about. Spanish appeared to be the language of commerce. After checking into a hotel, I set out to learn the city and find the Creole culture.

The residential homes I saw were different from the ground-level brick structures on the Pacific coast. Most were built on wooden posts resembling stilts. The architecture was interesting, but I had come to experience Creole. There were hints of Afro-Nicaraguan culture downtown. Some storefront signs were written in English, vendors sold T-shirts with Bob Marley pictured on them, and restaurants offered "run-down," a popular local dish. Run-down is made with fish cooked in coconut milk with various seasonings, cassava or yucca, and plantains. Except for an occasional reggae tune from a car stereo, I heard only the usual salsa and merengue.

Any authentic surviving Creole culture seemed nonexistent.

The next day, as I was walking away from my hotel, I heard someone call my name. I turned around and saw Franklin, a tall, light- skinned, freckle-faced guy with a shaved head. I had played basketball against Franklin in Managua. In Creole he said, "Hey mon, wha ya do err en Bluefields?" I explained to him why I had come and that I was going to check the travel schedule back to Managua. Franklin asked me to follow him. He took me to a restaurant off the main street to meet some of his friends. They all spoke Creole!

I told them of my desire to learn and experience their culture. Without giving me any chance to refuse, they all got up and took me off to a section of the city called Beholden. They said they would show me "watt we Creole colture es bout."

They introduced me to their world through their food, reggae music obtained from Jamaica, rum, and conversation on the history of Bluefields and its people. Some of the Creoles in Nicaragua, they told me, migrated from neighboring Caribbean islands. Some are descendants of slaves, and others of the Garifunas.

Garifunas are descendants of African captives who survived a shipwreck near St. Vincent. They were subsequently never enslaved and lived independently, maintaining African lifestyles and traditions. After revolutionary activity against the British in the eighteenth century, they were banished to the island of Roatan. Their descendants settled along the Atlantic coasts of Central America.

I also learned of a celebration that they considered unique to the eastern coasts of Central America, called Palo de Mayo. At the start of the rainy season, usually in May, there is dancing around a special maypole, which is adorned with colorful ribbons. This celebration (which must derive in part from English and European maypole traditions) evolved from a time when field-workers danced around their plowing tools and sticks as the first rain of the season fell.

To a reggae beat

After dinner, Franklin asked if I wanted to join his friends at a nightclub he claimed few people from outside Bluefields had ever visited. In the United States, I might have felt cautious, and maybe unwilling to step outside my comfort zone. In this situation, however, I felt at ease. Besides, I reasoned, to experience another culture on an intimate level I had to accept some risk.

We walked down the street, hailed a taxi, and drove through dark, narrow streets. When we got out of the taxi, I could hear a melodic reggae beat on the warm ocean breeze. We walked on a wooden-planked path between several small houses on stilts. We came to a clearing near the waterfront that had what appeared to be a large gazebo, also raised on stilts, which housed a disco called Lego-Lego.

It was dark inside, but we could see from the shadows cast from strobe lights that it was full of people dancing. We were greeted by several guys who seemed curious about me. They knew I was a stranger, but my association with Franklin was my passkey to that exclusive social spot. I spent the night dancing and sweating until the sun came up.

As an African American, I readily identified with Bluefields' Creole culture, and I subsequently visited other places in Central America where there are AfroCaribbean cultures. These experiences have given me a different perspective on my Afro-American culture and a certain pride. Pride, in that many AfroCaribbeans look at the many accomplishments Afro-Americans have made as a reflection of their own potential.

I also realized that although AfroNicaraguan/Caribbean culture in Bluefields is alive, it is becoming diluted. Immigration from the Pacific regions and the migration of Creoles to Managua for school and work are contributing factors. I feel fortunate to have experienced Creole culture at that time and to the extent that I did. Bluefields, like the entire country of Nicaragua, is changing rapidly. While some of the changes are for the best, others may be regrettable.

I do feel some sadness. I know that Afro-Caribbeans and Central Americans in general may lose some of their culture in pursuit of progress. I hope, despite the many changes taking place in Nicaragua, that Bluefields-and communities like it-never lose their sense of cultural uniqueness and distinction.

Balancing between worlds

The Peace Corps wants its members to live among and work with poor people. With that focus I lived within certain economic boundaries, traveling everywhere by bicycle or bus and doing without a television, air conditioner, or indoor running water (although all were available in my town for a price). I visited friends in communities where chickens, pigs, and iguanas would run across dirt roads while residents hauled goods and possessions in carts pulled by horses or oxen.

I took pride in successfully adapting to that lifestyle. I found pleasure in simple things: waking up to the crowing of roosters, hand- washing and sun-drying my clothes, scribbling long, philosophical letters to friends in the United States, reading, and sitting on my porch as I stared through tropical rains at the silhouette of a nearby volcano. For every meal I usually ate the traditional gallo pinto style of rice and beans, plantain, and a meat. But self-denial was neither my goal nor purpose. Once in a while I would treat myself by splurging on a nice restaurant meal in Managua. I would purposely not tell my less fortunate barrio friends about such an indulgence.

I did not want to draw attention to their more limited economic reality.

Following my return to the United States. I came almost full circle, readapting to a more materialistic lifestyle. I found myself feeling that I had somehow compromised the basic lifestyle values that I had gained from my Peace Corps experience. I guess that's the negative side of being flexible and adaptable. I changed to match my environment. I now have opportunities, choices, and abundance. I drive everywhere and rarely interact with my neighbors, whom I only see going to and from their cars. Most weekends I drive to the park to play basketball, or to the golf course. It's difficult to stay in touch with old friends from my `hood.

Most have also moved away, to be closer to their jobs. We took our money and talents to the suburbs. In the hood, where my parents still live, I am a stranger to the youths and older guys hanging out on the corners. I pass them in my new car, giving only a slight nod of my head. They notice the Lexus and could care less about its driver.

From the perspective of some in my old neighborhood, I have sold out by making it in corporate America. Have I? What does that mean, anyway? Others understand that I am doing what is necessary to pursue a better life. From the perspective of people in the high-rent sections of town, I have only taken proper advantage of the opportunities available. Nice cars, expensive condos, yearly out-of- state vacations are deserved rewards for hard and smart work.

I have been fortunate enough to get back to the income level that I had before my Peace Corps assignment. But I also know that I have more than I need.There are also times when I am a little depressed to see the trash discarded in my yuppie neighborhood. Most of our waste would be considered valuable and be recycled in underdeveloped countries.

Based on my Peace Corps experience of life in a poorer country, I feel I am in a privileged position. I am able to comment from life's lessons on certain issues such as environmental protection, human rights, or economic distribution. I am not an activist, but when an opportunity presents itself, I try to make friends, family and acquaintances aware of the global impact of certain actions or ideas. I have asked those who want to make a difference to share their abundance with charities that have a record of verifiable results.

Like most people, I want to enjoy life but not at someone else's expense. I have also learned that I must use discretion in displaying my economic privileges before those with less, if I wish to be of any help to them. Flaunting "stuff" can make others feel inadequate and even more desperate than before. I don't want to contribute to that. I realize the advantages of my life but hope that I can continue to see myself as the humble brown gringo who rode his bike everywhere, who lived like the ordinary Nicaraguans he tried to help. That will keep my own life in proper perspective.

Concerns and Misconceptions

Dispelling Nicaraguan stereotypes about racial minorities in the United States was a challenge. I welcomed opportunities to explain (especially to those who lacked access to responsible Western media or television programming ) that there are regular North Americans who differ from what Nicaraguans perceive or accept as the norm. Many in rural areas had no idea, for example, that African Americans are excelling in business, academia, and politics.

They asked about the disproportionate statistics involving crime and the incarceration of racial minorities versus nonminorities. One reason for this, I suggested, was that even in the United States, fewer economic and educational opportunities are available to racial minorities. The situation is similar in Central and South America. In most cases the people accepted my points, especially when they could draw parallels to the circumstances surrounding racial minorities in their own countries.

North, South, and Central Americans of color share similar economic, social, and political challenges. I have experienced how Central Americans of color cope with racial biases and poverty. Their problems are much harsher than anything we have in the United States today. Of considerable importance was seeing and experiencing how these people live without the benefit, or enforcement of, basic constitutional rights and protections that we norteamerieanossometimes take for granted.

I could relate to their circumstances, but it was harder for them to comprehend my explanations of the challenges confronting people of color in the United States today. Their perception was that everyone living in America has access to a "good life." They were aware that the United States offers its people more opportunities for advancement and that most American citizens have the basics: food, water, and shelter. Nicaraguans know that we have formal systems to assist those who cannot secure such basic needs. There are few, if any, such government-sponsored programs in Latin America.

Wanting my Nicaraguan friends to focus on me as an "everyday person," I selected photos to show them that did not emphasize the materialistic differences of our two countries. At first they questioned my leaving the comfort of the United States to live in their relatively poor county. I reasoned that their slower, more natural pace of life and their sense of family were valuable, and that the materialistic consumer focus of American culture tended to take North Americans away from the simple pleasures. They thought I was strange for thinking that way. Most of them expressed the wish to live in the United States and get a chance to have things, to live the "good life." -M.H.L.

Mark H. Lewis returned to Central America in August to undertake his duties as Crisis Corps coordinator for Nicaragua.

Copyright Washington Times Corporation Oct 1999

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Story Source: Personal Web Page

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nicaragua; Minority Volunteers



By Bluefield ( - on Monday, November 10, 2003 - 10:42 pm: Edit Post

Iam currently developing a curriculum on Afro-Latino and other ethnic groups of Bluefield , Nicaragua. I had the opportunity of DISCOVERING and researching the history and ASSIMILATING IN THE CULTURE OF BLUEFIELD.Our university have formed a Partnership with Bluefield Caribbean University. One country divided by race. Afro-latino are experiencing the same problems we
are experiencing in America. Bluefield, Nicaragua , June 2003. My students are interedted
in voluntering for spring break in Bluefield. chow

By karla romero ( - on Friday, November 21, 2003 - 10:51 pm: Edit Post

how can someone participate/ volunteer, do they need tobe part of peace corps?

By Marilyn Torres ( - on Tuesday, October 03, 2006 - 7:40 pm: Edit Post

I was truly touched upon reading your post... I am a young Nicaraguan-American and all throughout my life I have struggled to find my identity. I was able to relate to so much of what you reflected on, about race, economic status, and life here in the states. Never have I encountered anyone who viewed the world as preceisly as I. You have inspired me, and I'd like to thank you for aiding me in finding my path to happiness.

~ Ms. Marilyn

By Anonymous ( on Friday, February 23, 2007 - 6:51 pm: Edit Post

i too have been touched and inspired by what you've shared. i am in the beginning stages of taking my trip, THE TRIP, I know I need to travel. Just yesterday I stumbled across the idea of stopping in Nicaragua and all day today I've been reading nonstop about what sounds to be a lovely country. I am a young African American/Portugese woman and too feel it's close to impossible to have a balanced perspective on this world, while we live in this bubble called the USA. I'm eagerly looking forward to drowning in other's culture and soaking in lots of beach sun time alone. You've inspired me. And it's always reassuring to hear a person's story as opposed to reading a travel book. much love~

By Anonymous ( on Wednesday, June 20, 2007 - 5:51 pm: Edit Post

I am an American living in the Pacific coast, I would like to welcome to my humble place to any of you wonderful peace corp volunteer and enjoy a cup of good coffee, perhaps a "Jaibol" (rum and coke). I am looking forward to get involved with a good project with the e corps but I have not found the chance just yet.
Hit me at



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