Peace Corps Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with Gonzalo Molina Zegarra

Hispanic Heritage Month begins today and the Peace Corps would like to honor returned volunteers and staff of Hispanic heritage. As part of this celebration, here are highlights from an interview with Gonzalo Molina, chief administrative officer of the Peace Corps’ Inter-American and Pacific Region. Gonzalo has been with the Peace Corps for almost 18 years.

The theme for Hispanic Heritage Month 2020 is “Be proud of your past and embrace the future.” What are you proud of in your past and what are you embracing in your future? How has Peace Corps played a role in this?

I am always proud to be Latinx, wherever I am. I think it goes along with what Latinx people learn from our families. It’s something we carry and it's our responsibility as Latinx people living in the U.S.—to make sure that, whatever the circumstances, we never forget our culture. We’ve been in civil wars, we were conquered by the Spanish, we have fought for so many things over hundreds of years to get to where we are right now and we should be proud of that. So, never, ever think that you have to change or be ashamed of who you are because what you are is valuable. Latinx culture is highly respected and I think it’s our job to keep it that way.

Be proud of the Spanish language, it is so rich and embedded with so many traditions and history. My wife and I have a rule that my kids can only speak Spanish at home. It is very important to us. It's hard to go to a different country and to carry all those things with you and make sure that they stay a part of your culture. So, be proud! I am proud.

There's a lot of uncertainty right now. It affects everyone. But I think if we, as the Latinx community, rely on our strong principles and all the things our culture has had to go through for so many years, we can overcome whatever comes next.

Can you tell us about your background and how you learned about Peace Corps?

I come from a middle income family in La Paz, Bolivia.

My parents are from more humble beginnings. I learned from them that with hard work and sacrifice, you will be able to accomplish your goals and dreams. My dad started his first job as a security police officer in the American Embassy in La Paz. With years of sacrifice, he was able to become the head regional security officer. My mom was a teacher and, with a lot of hard work, she became principal of her school.

My dad worked for the American Embassy for over 30 years in La Paz so I knew a bit about Peace Corps. I learned more when I came to the United States, of course.

I started my higher education in Bolivia at the Bolivian Catholic University and then I transferred to Arizona State University. When I finished my bachelor's in Economics, I pursued an MBA in finance at DeVry University.

When I was in an exchange program at Arizona State University, I saw a lot of outreach efforts for the Peace Corps. I also had a friend that served in Guatemala and he told me that experience changed his life. But, I was not a U.S. citizen at the time and I knew that was a major requirement to apply. However, I was always into numbers, loved economics and finance. So, I went to work at a bank thinking that was my path. I worked there for one year, and realized it wasn’t for me.

I met my wife at school and we decided to go back to Bolivia. I had been in the States for five or six years at that point. My wife has been instrumental in keeping our Latinx family values and supporting me during this great adventure.

I have always said in life that things happen for a reason. The first job I saw in the newspaper back home was at Peace Corps: financial assistant. So I applied. Howard Lyon was the country director at that time and he was from Arizona, so we had a lot in common. He told me he liked my background and experience and he said, if you want to work for Peace Corps, you’d be a good fit. That was almost 18 years ago.

From day one, I fell in love with Peace Corps and the staff. They embodied our awesome mission and showed me how different it is to work here than at any other place. I decided I wanted to work at Peace Corps for as long as I could.

I worked my way up to director of management and operations (DMO) in Bolivia. But the post had to be closed due to political reasons and I received a letter that my services would not be needed anymore. Luckily, just before my contract was going to end, there was an opportunity for me to go to St. Lucia for three weeks. Those three weeks became three months, then a year, then a year and a half. My supervisors asked me to stay a little bit longer after that and I helped open the program in Colombia. I worked there for another year until they asked me to go back to Bolivia to officially close the post there. It was very emotional for all the staff. Then, another opportunity came to go to Paraguay as acting DMO for almost a year.

At this point, my wife and I started the paperwork for me to get a green card and, in a very fortunate twist, Peace Corps hired me at Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I definitely went through an adjustment period, acclimating to life in the U.S., but I was lucky I was still with the Peace Corps, an organization I loved from the very beginning.

Today, I am chief administrative officer of the Inter-America and Pacific Region. I have three children with my wife Thalia: Altania, 13, Darko, 10 and Arya, 4.

How do you think your identity has played into your Peace Corps experience?

Latinx culture is very family-oriented. We care about the people that we work with. I remember in Bolivia, I used to call my dad’s friends “uncle.” I feel the same way at Peace Corps: We're all a big family, working towards the same goals.

I remember visiting a volunteer in the middle of Bolivia in my early years with the Peace Corps. We take a flight from La Paz and then drive 13-14 hours into the rain forest. Its 100 degrees outside and humid. The volunteer had to climb up a tree to get a signal in his cell phone to let us know where the next turn was. When we finally arrive, his host family’s with him and he’s sweating and has a huge smile on his face.

The family is from a very modest background but they give us the best food they have—they don’t take the food first. They wait until we are fed and then they eat. The host family treats the volunteer as their son. He had just arrived but you could tell that, for them, he would be their son forever. That's how it works at Peace Corps posts, too. Everyone is part of the family, “mi casa es su casa.”

I could also tell the volunteer wanted to contribute. He did whatever he had to do to make his family happy. And I thought, here’s this U.S. citizen who has left his own country to go to the middle of Bolivia with no air conditioning, very complicated conditions and he’s smiling every single day, doing his job to make this community better. It was clear to me that anything I have to deal with was not going to be a problem after that. I had air conditioning in my office. I had a comfortable house, hot water, and hot meals. If this volunteer can make this work, I can do anything.

One of the hardest things I had to do as a Peace Corps staff member in Bolivia was evacuate all of the volunteers. We knew that when the volunteers left, it would be the end of Peace Corps Bolivia. We had staff that had been working there for 20, 25, even 30 years who knew they were going to lose their jobs but their commitment and professionalism until the end was so strong. It was hard. There was a lot of uncertainty. But they did it the right way and they worked hard, right up to the end. This is a hallmark of Latinx culture: we work hard and we are proud of the work we do.

Do you think that being Latinx has given you a different perspective from your non-Latinx colleagues? Why or why not?

Yes, I definitely think being Latinx has given me a different perspective. We are a respectful culture and we care about what we do. I think people see that right away. Our work is more than just a job or a paycheck.

Latinx culture is people-oriented so we always try to bring the human aspect into any equation. Sometimes, people can be very direct when they want to accomplish something. I try to soften that directness a little bit. If you add a “please,” or “if you don't mind,” that changes the whole tone. This part of Latinx culture helps us navigate highly complicated situations and accomplish our objectives. My colleagues often say, “How are you always so calm, why aren’t you stressed out about this situation?” But I approach complexities by seeing the humanity in them. Let's hear what they have to say, let's talk to others in a way that lets them know they have been heard. It's just part of my culture.

What’s the most rewarding
thing about being a Latinx employee of Peace Corps? What's the most challenging?

The most rewarding aspect of working for Peace Corps as a Latinx employee is that whatever you're doing—whether you're in management, or budget, or communications, you're helping Latin America in a direct way. That’s rewarding to me and it’s an honor. I also feel valued by my colleagues because of my background. I have never felt I was in the wrong place.

One of the more challenging aspects is that we need more Latinx people at Peace Corps, especially at senior levels. I believe with small changes, we will open more opportunities for our culture.

What do you want other people to know about working for the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps is an ideal organization to work for if you come from a diverse background. The mission and values are unique and so important; they align very well with Latinx culture.

You have staff at Peace Corps in D.C. that are RPCVs. They’ve given two years of their lives to work in a country where they don't know the language. They don't know anyone. They have sacrificed a lot. They may get homesick but they stay, they finish their service and they have this huge sense of accomplishment. I think that makes Peace Corps very special because you’re working with genuinely good people and big hearts and this makes such a difference

We had to evacuate all Peace Corps volunteers around the world earlier this year because of the coronavirus. It was intense. It was a puzzle of so many pieces, with very long stressful days and nights but, amazingly, there was never an argument. There was no yelling, no conflict. Of course there were mistakes, but no one was pointing fingers. It was a big undertaking and no one was prepared for it. But we made it work in a very positive way. I think that shows how Peace Corps, as an agency, is unique.

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