Peace Corps Empowered Me to Embrace My Intersectionalized Identities

By Joshua Alvarez
June 30, 2017

June marks both LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month, a time throughout the world that allows people like me to celebrate our authentic selves.

June marks both LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month, a time throughout the world that allows people like me to celebrate our authentic selves. It marks a celebration of all the accomplishments the LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities have made, it is a time to honor the leaders and activists who led us to where we are today, and a time to acknowledge that there is still a lot of progress to achieve globally.

I was never as open as I am today, recognizing my true self, identifying as bisexual, queer, first-generation U.S. citizen, Mexican-American, and Latinx. I grew up in a conservative state in the U.S., where being slightly different can mean being easily marginalized. This forced me to internalize my oppression and hide my queer identity throughout most of my life. As I began to travel and volunteer in developing countries, I realized that this is the case for many LGBTQ+ people, including here in Costa Rica. I began to realize that by hiding my true self, I was doing an injustice to those around me by not demonstrating what being LGBTQ+ is and that there is nothing wrong with being different. I hope that my newly discovered openness will allow others to not fear being their authentic selves and not fear the differences of others. 

Throughout the past year in Peace Corps what I have realized is that we have a deep human interconnectedness that makes us more similar than different and that there is a lot of value in embracing our diversity while sharing it with one another. My hope is that the United States becomes a model for social inclusion to the rest of the world. As a Peace Corps Volunteer my role is to represent the best of our country, a welcoming place to anyone who is different, especially immigrants and refugees, that want to have a chance toward the American Dream. American values are embodied in Peace Corps Volunteers, we make up an abundant amount of diverse experiences and the Peace Corps allows us to share our stories throughout the world. This is the same goal that we hope to bring to our communities. We are dedicated to help train and empower our community members to celebrate diversity and inclusion.

One way we are doing this here in Costa Rica is through the creation of a Volunteer-led, Intercultural Competence, Diversity, & Inclusion (ICD&I) Committee. This opportunity has given me the chance to collaborate with Peace Corps Volunteers and staff to better equip our organization to do our work more effectively. We deal with differences on a day-to-day basis and a challenge can be knowing how to navigate difficult experiences when encountering a lack of diversity and inclusion. What has made my service the most difficult has been having to confront microaggressions throughout my service and feeling pressured to hide parts of my identity in site. At the same time, what has made my service the most rewarding has been feeling empowered to embrace who I am with the support of staff and fellow Volunteers, and opportunities like the ICD&I Committee. Unlike any other job that I have had before, I now understand more about myself and others, making me more culturally aware and socially conscious, and helping me to become professionally adaptable to any diverse work environment.

Peace Corps has empowered me to embrace my intersectionalized identities as a queer person of color and share them without being ashamed. As a queer Volunteer of color, a huge challenge I face is living in a rural community where the exposure to diversity isn't high. A lot of people in rural areas have never met anyone who is overtly different than them and their community. When you have a lack of exposure toward multiculturalism and diversity it creates low levels of intercultural competence and inclusion, which in result can create negative biases such as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. This is the case for my community and me. I volunteer in the rural mountains of an indigenous community, where most people have never met someone who is open and proud to be LGTBQ+ or who is an American of Mexican immigrant descent. I view this as a work opportunity for me, to build empathy, compassion, and understanding toward the experiences of those that are socially marginalized and oppressed. As Peace Corps Volunteers part of our job is educate our community members on cultural diversity, which is done by accomplishing goals 2 and 3:

  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Just within the last year, our ICD&I Committee has facilitated several events and trainings focused on diversity and inclusion to Volunteers, staff, and community members, including receiving training from the PC/Washington ICD&I Team which resides in OPATS (Office of Overseas Programming & Training Support). One event that we partake in annually here in Costa Rica, along with the U.S. Embassy, is Marcha de la Diversidad (Diversity March). It is a day where as Volunteers, we can march through the capital of Costa Rica, San José, along with our fellow host country nationals, demonstrating unity and allyship toward sexual and gender differences. This year it was held on Sunday, June 25, just like many other Peace Corps countries throughout the world.

Marcha de la Diversidad
Marcha de la Diversidad in San José, Costa Rica on Sunday, June 25, 2017

The march toward social inclusion for the LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities is barely beginning globally and as Peace Corps Volunteers we have the opportunity to collaborate with our community members to be a part of these movements. As Volunteers we can train people in areas where exposure to diversity and inclusion isn't high. Oftentimes it is not that people are hateful toward difference, rather, it is their lack of recognizing that diversity is all around us and its importance. People do not know how to create inclusion unless we provide them with the tools and resources to do so. This is what we hope to do here in PC/Costa Rica through the ICD&I Committee by equipping all stakeholders to be a part of creating a more diverse and inclusive world. As Audre Lorde, one of my favorite LGBTQ+ authors states, "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."

I firmly believe that as Volunteers we are social change agents and we can end discrimination and prejudice through the power of dialogue, relationship building, and social activism. When President John F. Kennedy called for the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961, it was a call for social action in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement. Our job as Volunteers now is to continue answering this call and build social inclusion throughout the world alongside our community members by creating world peace, friendship, and local capacity-building.

Joshua Alvarez head shot