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Disney magic comes to Ermera

Volunteer William's host mother and two daughters, in Timor-Leste.
William's three youngest host sisters, Clara, Ester, and Titi, surrounding their mom in hearts.

I came to the Peace Corps with a couple of footballs, cleats, and a dream of teaching English through sports, among other things. How great would it be to accomplish the first two goals of the Peace Corps while doing what I love, tossing the ol’ pigskin?

When I first came to the mountain village in Timor-Leste where my Peace Corps service would take place, I spent most afternoons in the courtyard of my middle school playing with the neighborhood kids. I showed them a few classic American games. Kickball was an instant favorite. Playing keep away/hot potato was a chaotic joy. We also collaborated to make some new games. Much joy was experienced, but unfortunately not much English was learned among the grunts and shouts. I knew there had to be a better way to help youth learn English while having fun.

One cloudy morning, on the day I turned 26, fellow Volunteers Ruby and Paul showed up at my house to surprise me. After exploring the best local trails, we found ourselves sitting on a rock far upstream in a seasonally dry riverbed, with the mesmerizing, latticed canopy of a Samtuku tree overhead while we talked about whatever Peace Corps Volunteers usually talk about, like oral rehydration salts, or all the books we’re totally going to start reading.

When someone brought up movies they’d watched at site, I realized that, while I’d brought a bit of American culture through football, I had overlooked movies. Countless people grew up outside of an English-speaking country, yet learned the language from media they loved, especially movies. What easier way for me to help my community learn English than through American movies? It would be perfect; all I needed was the movies.

After making our way back down the trails to my host family’s house, I found out that Ruby and Paul not only happened to have DVDs in their backpacks but were also in generous moods. They lent me some classics that I would enjoy but, importantly, that the kids would also love.

Love might understate the magnitude of what my host siblings felt watching Shrek for the first time. The big green ogre was only the first of their obsessions. After two weeks of watching Shrek every night, it then became Up, and after that, Jurassic Park. This last one struck me deeply as I remembered the countless nights I spent as a kid watching Jurassic Park again and again, sitting perfectly still every time a T-Rex came into view, following Dr. Grant’s firm commands to “not…move…a muscle.” The magic was especially alive in my host younger sister Ester as she not only wanted to watch it every night, but dragged everyone she could find to watch as well.

Watching Disney movies in Timor-Leste
Watching Disney movies in Timor-Leste.

Eventually we made our way to the Disney films. Coco and Encanto, animated films that take place in fictional settings of Mexico and South America, were two newer ones I had never seen before. It was with Ester that the infectious songs caught on the strongest. We couldn’t go a minute in the house without hearing her sing about Coco or the family Madrigal. Within a few weeks, she had memorized every single song and let the world know it.

One night my host sibling Santiago, who lives in the capital Dili for school and work, came for a visit. He is always looking for ways to improve his English. I suggested watching a movie. He asked Ester which one we should watch, and she naturally picked Coco. I normally do my own thing while they watch, but this time I sat down and watched along with them, mostly to help Santi with any phrases he didn’t know.

I grew up in Southern California in a Mexican-American majority town, and it was comforting to re-experience the Mexican culture depicted in the movie. It made me long for home and reminded me of the love for other cultures that inspired me to join the Peace Corps. I had the most profound feeling at the end, hearing Ester’s favorite song, “Remember me, though I have to say goodbye. Remember meeeeee…” I was reminded that one day I would have to say goodbye to this family I have grown to love so dearly, my siblings and my mom who calls me her oan-mane (son). While the goodbye song is a soul-crushingly beautiful moment, at the end of the movie we realize that there is never a final goodbye.

In addition to helping me contemplate and appreciate human impermanence, the movie has given all the kids (and some adults) the chance to learn English. It has been such a success I can even tell my siblings “Mirabel (from Encanto) likes to eat ___.” whenever they’re picky eaters.

Football was fun, but my community really wanted Shrek. It hasn’t been all positive, though. Without a doubt the largest constraint on me working has been Ester coming to me during the day asking timidly and politely in English if she can watch a movie on my laptop. Without fail, I am always the stern older brother who tells her that she can’t because I have to work. A few minutes later I find myself letting her watch a movie. I fold every time.

To address this challenge, I hope to put in a grant proposal with my schools to purchase a projector to share the movie magic (and other learning) with all the students of Ermera. For now, the community huddles around the laptop, keeping each other quiet so they don’t miss a word Miguel says to Mama Coco.