Breaking down barriers

Breaking down barriers
By Betty Zambrano
Oct. 24, 2014

Today is my last day in South America. 

Tomorrow, before the sun rises over Cartagena’s colonial streets I’ll be en route northward, crossing continents and oceans on my way to San Francisco. The important thing here is not that I am going to the U.S., but the fact that I am leaving Latin America, indefinitely.

It’ll come as no surprise to readers that the Peace Corps, and everything the experience encompasses, has changed me to the core. I think it’ll be years before I can really understand the full implications, but what I can understand now is my personal connection to the rich cultural heritage inherent in Latin America.

Immediately after officially completing my service, a group of Volunteers and I organized an eight-day, 124 kilometer (77-mile) hiking trek around the Huayhuash mountain range in the central Andean province of Ancash. In all honesty, it was a wild undertaking on my part, knowing we’d hike over 5,000-meter (16,000 feet) mountain passes and camp every night in below-freezing temperatures. What better way to end two years of the greatest mental, emotional and psychological challenge than with the greatest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken? I knew seven to eight hours of hiking every day would give me more than enough time to reflect on life. 

As I hiked, I became overwhelmed with the immense beauty of the entire journey, from the tiny mountain town where we started our hike to the long stretches of nothingness in each valley we crossed. Sometimes I couldn’t believe what I was staring at directly with my own eyes.

One of the things that will stay with me forever is the natural landscapes I’ve experienced through my trips in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. And then there was Huayhuash, exemplifying the natural beauty of not only Peru but all of Latin America. It’s not only the pristine topography that makes this part of the world stunning, but its complex cultural history. 

I considered myself a well-read, educated Hispanic American adult, but I’ve felt ignorant in regard to the region where I was serving. Thankfully, during service I had the time to read to my heart’s content, immersing myself in chronicles of the Inca Empire, the colonial revolutionaries and stories of the “dirty wars” and dictatorships that have changed the continent. It’s important to know the turbulent history in order to be able to truly appreciate what is happening in Latin America now.

What I found is that I’ve been guilty of having a distorted sense of our neighbor to the south. To many North Americans who take an interest in Latin American history and politics, anything south of the Rio Grande is a "Third World" area where the one thing you need to know is “don’t drink the water.” Even we, Latinos, have started to believe the hype, abandoning cultural practices and foregoing the passage of Spanish fluency to our children in order to further assimilate. 

If all you know is what the media portrays of the continent and if you never happened to make your way down here, you’d never know that Lima is a world-class city, Ecuador is an example of order and cleanliness and Colombia is a hot spot for tourists from every corner of the world. You’d miss the sense of community among people and the progress being made every day toward a better future.  

So although I have many pieces of the Peace Corps readjustment puzzle to work out, as I leave Latin America I am sure of one thing: the amount of pride and respect I feel for being allowed to live here and connect with my heritage these last two years has changed the direction of my sails, and although I’m working on the next steps of my journey, I can honestly say that advocating for Latin America will be a lifelong theme.

Betty Zambrano

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