Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Why does America control Coca Cola?"

To an American, this may be an odd question. But to the average Paraguayan, it is completely legitimate. And why did I put that question in quotes? Well, because I was actually asked this question by a young Paraguayan named Carlos. That question, and so many others I have heard within the 4 months I have been in Paraguay, may seem like an innocent case of naivety on the surface, but after thinking about WHY Carlos would ask me something like that; a deeper social and economic issue arose.

Please take note here that, like all of my other blog entries, these are my experiences and my opinions. I will try to tread as lightly as I can on this subject without sacrificing my message. This entry has little to do with American corporations and the American government (which depending on who you are talking to are synonymous), but more to do with the face Americans paint on themselves from an international perspective.

Bueno… I am a politician. I am an ambassador. My name is Lisa Simpson, and I am from Springfield, USA. I am every American family. And if you have traveled outside of those beautiful United Sates of America, you have been too. So before I get too deep, let’s meet Carlos!

5 de Septiembre, and it’s about 23:00 hrs. Julie and I, on our amazing journey from Asuncion to Altos, are stranded in Ypacarai. There are no more buses, and the taxi cost Gs 70.000 (about $17). If we were in any other country in the world, I probably would have just paid the taxi the outrageous fair. But we are in Paraguay, and in Paraguay things work themselves out… tranquilopa.

Even in the quiet darkness of the street corner we were on, something about us screamed “Americans” (surprise, surprise). Maybe it was Julie’s blonde hair, or the enormous hiking pack I had on my back, who knows, but along came Carlos (at this point, it’s about midnight). Carlos is a native and proud Paraguayan, in his mid 20’s, who sells cell phones in Asuncion. That night, he would be the inspiration for this blog.

“Ustedes son Americanas!? Verdad?”

“Si,” Julie answers, and we begin talking to Carlos.

He proceeds to tell -more like teach- us about los Estados Unidos.

“America is in between Canada and Mexico! And you have 50 stars on your flag to represent your 50 states!”

“Si,” we answer, excited that he knows so much. Then, things go down hill. (This is going to seem really random, but literally this is what we talked about with Carlos for about an hour).

“…and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California. I like the Terminator. Sarah Connor is from American too. So is Chuck Norris, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson (yes! Of course), and Evander Holyfield (I guess he likes boxing)… I’ve met a lot of Americans here, and Germans too; there are a lot of Germans. But Americans and Germans are different. German women have nice asses, and breasts too (he grabbed his ass to emphasis his point; I wish I had my camera). Americans are not as good-looking. They are all fat. Americans love to eat, right?”

“Umm, si?” we say.

“… You like hamburgers, and pizza, and French fries. Oh, and you like Coca Cola! I love Coca Cola. Americans are all rich. You have a lot of money, and you control everything. The world is yours. You even control Coca Cola! Why does America control Coca Cola?!”

Something changed in my mind at that moment, with that question. While I was trying to explain to Carlos in my bad Spanish that Coca Cola is an American corporation, I realized that my words could, and most likely would be repeated over and over again throughout Ypacarai, Asuncion, and the whole of Paraguay.

I was not surprised at all at what Carlos knew, or thought he knew, about America. But I felt bad that he had such a limited, and odd, collections of ideas. At first, the thought of “educating” people like him seemed like a daunting task. Who am I to say, “No Carlos, actually…” But as an American, with all of the education and opportunities I have been afforded, it is my duty to not “preach” the truth, as I see it, but to “share” my experiences and knowledge. My truth is that yes, as a human, the world is mine… and with this ownership comes responsibility. The U.S. has amazing organizations, like the Peace Corps, whose soul purpose is to help others, spread “good”, and exchange culture. But it does not end there. Every time someone leaves their native soil for a foreign land, they have the opportunity to be an ambassador for good. Every time you meet someone within our borders that is from another country, you have the chance to be a “tour guide” so-to-speak. It’s the butterfly effect (eh, I didn’t want to use that analogy). But your actions and comments, or lack of action, says SO many things about not only you but America as a whole. I am not trying to scare you away from interacting with others; on the contrary, I am trying to encourage you to take on this unique and special role.

So Julie called me the other day to tell me that she was passing through Ypacarai on the bus, and she couldn’t help but look out her window at “our” corner for Carlos. Wherever you are Carols, I hope you learned a little bit from Julie and me. We aren’t German, but I think we are pretty cool, and I hope you had fun with us. I’ll tell Arnold, Sarah, Chuck, Mike, Michael, and Evander you said “Hola” when I get back to the States.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's always Christmas en 25 de Diciembre!

A little bit of background information before I dive into this next blog...

The Republic of Paraguay has just entered a new era. Whether or not you are in a Red home, or a Blue home, you cannot deny that fact. From 1954 to 1989 the country was under a cruel dictatorship; the history of which varies, depending on whether or not you are talking to a member of the Colorado Party, or the Liberal Party. However, this past spring, Fernando Lugo achieved a historic victory in Paraguay's presidential election, defeating the ruling party candidate and ending 61 years of conservative Colorado Party rule.

Now, imagine that you are a poor Paraguayan housewife. Mother of five children, and living in a small isolated barrio. You do not have a television, but word here in Paraguay travels fast. You just heard the news, "down with the Red." But what does this mean to you?

Peace Corps volunteers are encouraged to find a counterpart while they are living in site. A counterpart is a member of the community, and is someone who act as a mentor. It takes some volunteers months to find a good counterpart, and some end up having multiple counterparts during the course of their two years of service. I was extremely fortunate enough to meet Raquel Romero my very first week in site. And when I say I was extremely fortunate, I mean it... EXTREMELY. Raquel is a very unique, dynamic, and inspirational woman. She lives in La Virgin de la Asuncion, the barrio next to mine, with her husband (retired National Police officer) and is mother to five children between the ages of 8 and 26.

When I met Raquel, she took me under her wing with no questions asked. Wow, I really didn't even mean to have a play on words, but with her help and guidance I feel like I have literally been able to have a birds-eye-view of my district, the people, and its problems. My day-to-day routine normally consists of shadowing Raquel as she visits each of the 23 barrios to meet with the different women's committees in 25 de Diciembre.

"The purpose of organization is change... the only change in our government is color, we cannot rely on them."

I have heard Raquel say this about 20 times now, to 20 different groups of women, and every time I hear her and I am that much more motivated. As an American, it is impossible for me to completely understand the degree to which Paraguayans dislike and distrust their government. What have they done for that woman and her five children? But that woman, like Raquel and so many others, does not need the national government to make her family's life better.

There is no solidarity between the different groups. No representation in the Municipality. These women have ideas and motivation. But no means of change...

So now I am sitting in on a neighborhood women's committee meeting. It is about 14:00 hours (2:00 pm). Around me there are between 15 and 20 women, of all ages. On their knees are babies, and around them playing in that red Paraguayan dirt, are their children. It is 32 degrees Celsius (about 96 degrees Fahrenheit), so we are sitting under the shade of large mango tree. The breeze from the south is amazing, so you forget all about the heat. The meeting begins with "Mba'eichapa"... followed by besos and hand shakes. There is always ice cold Terere (, and you don't have to wait long for it to be passed around to you. Chickens, dogs, and pigs are wandering around. And there is always music somewhere in the background; not loud enough to hear the lyrics, but enough to add a lively beat to today's meeting. The meeting starts, and everyone is listening to the speaker intently. una buena punta is followed by an applause and smiles.

"We need to unify all the committees... there is potential for comercialization of our products. There is funding from Asian and European organizations, we do not need to wait for the Muni..."

"We need basic services here. We should not have to go to Santani (about 20 Km away) for medical support! We need to invest in our youth. They are our future, and deserve more than what we have."

The women here are the heart and soul of change. They literally and figuratively give birth to the future of Paraguay. I will give men credit too, where credit is deserved, and attribute to them the role of backbone. It takes a strong man to work these fields. Back breaking labor, to provide for their families. They are the physical strength, and provide the physical substance of life (food, clothing, shelter, etc.). But the women, the women, they are the soul, spirit, blood, faith, energy, and all of the above that drive this community, and all of Paraguay.

I am so excited to work with them, and Raquel, and will keep you posted on all of the changes yet to come.