Good Intent and Grave Missteps: How I Went from Latinx in the United States to White in Nicaragua, and the Lessons In Between (Part 1 of 2)

November 1, 2018

From insidious stereotypes to survivor’s guilt, my summer in Nicaragua after my freshman year of college was a whirlwind of emotions, mishaps, misunderstandings, and a lot of hard learning. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself and have an amazing time surrounded by wonderful people, but reflecting on my experience after some time away has helped me to realize how wholly unprepared I was for my experience in Nicaragua. Apart from not having a degree or experience in social work, I was unaware of the identities I and others held, especially in the cultural contexts of Nicaragua, and how they were interpreted or manifested. I was caught off guard not only by how different the cultural environment in Nicaragua was, but also how I was inadvertently promoting things I did not believe in: unethical partnerships and all the harms that come with them.  

Ten Weeks in Nicaragua

In the summer of 2016 I landed an internship through the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) at my college, and spent ten weeks interning at a residential youth center in San Marcos, Nicaragua. Due to reasons disclosed throughout the rest of the article as well as through the guidance of new leadership, the CPGC has since discontinued its partnership with this residential youth center and redirected its mission to prevent similar harmful, and unethical partnerships from developing.

The center in question was home to seven to eighteen year old kids who were there for various reasons, including families’ financial hardship and inability to care for them, drug abuse recovery, family abuse and unsafe neighborhood environments. In the center the children were expected to go to school and attend various training workshops for future jobs such as hammock-making, pottery, woodworking, dance, and sewing. Before arriving in Nicaragua I had already known all of this, including the fact that I would possibly be working with kids who had experienced severe trauma and hardship in their lives. I foolishly believed that with the training I received beforehand – a few workshops on identity and culture, some readings on the country and conversations with others who had gone before me – I was ready to go to Nicaragua and have a life-changing summer. And indeed, I did have a life-changing summer, but not in the way I had imagined.

Prior to embarking on the trip I was aware that I held stereotypes (consciously or subconsciously) of others and that, in turn, I would have different parts of my identity challenged, questioned or ignored. I knew that the machismo in Nicaragua was going to be a challenge for a hard-headed feminist such as myself. I also knew that my Argentine accent would be made fun of and that my South American cultural heritage could be drastically different than that of Central Americans. What I didn’t know was that I would be perceived as exceptionally wealthy and as a source of never-ending funds. Or that I would apply my Northern and Western ideals to situations that had no need for them, or where local standards were more relevant. This reality did not hit me until I was experiencing it head-on in Nicaragua.

Stereotypes: Their Complexity, Bidirectionality, and Power

While I was right about the machismo and the instantly identifiable accent, I had no idea that I would be perceived as extremely wealthy (both in and out of the Nicaraguan context). Though I knew I was comparatively more wealthy than the Nicaraguans around me, I didn’t expect that they would also perceive me as being much wealthier than many in the United States. As someone who is on full-paid tuition from scholarships and grants to attend Haverford College and as someone who did not pay for the trip to Nicaragua due to the generosity of the CPGC, this caught me off guard. I knew that I was fortunate to be able to be in Nicaragua and attend college at Haverford, but I had worked hard to attain these possibilities through scholarly and extracurricular opportunities. The concept of scholarships meant little to nothing to the Nicaraguans, who despite several instances of explaining that I wasn’t paying anything for the trip would still assume that I had more than enough money to spare. The matter was only worsened by the fact that I had bought snacks to give to the youth who finished their homework (a harder task to achieve than one would think) and did their chores. In the youth center the idea of treating the kids with prizes for good work was unheard of, so I was instantly associated with wealth. This kind of behavior was then expected of me every time I came to the site, and I was seen as more of a provider of material goods than of anything else.

In hindsight, the Nicaraguans were not the only ones guilty of holding stereotypes, generalizing attributes or interpreting identities differently than one would want. At the center many of the youth were one to several years behind their peers in school. They were usually held back due to not attending school regularly while they were with their families. This was often due to having to work to support the family, or at times due to running away. Though the kids were expected to go to school while living at the center, once they turned eighteen they were either hired by the center, sent off to be on their own, or sent to go back to their families. Many of them turned eighteen before finishing school. For young people who did not plan to stay and work at the center, the rule caused resentment because they would perceive school as pointless if finishing was never a part of their future.

Most of the youth who left the center before finishing their schooling did not go back to school once back with their families or in their home cities. The resentment towards school manifested itself in resistance to doing school work, skipping school and making excuses not to go to school (usually blamed on dirty or incorrect school uniforms that would “make the teacher send them home”). As someone who values education, I was taken aback by the aversion to school and apathy towards education. I was upset that the kids would waste their time and education by not going to school and perceived those that skipped often as lazy and rebellious.

At this time I believed it was my mission to instill the love of school (or at least appreciation of education) into the hearts and minds of these kids. It took several heart to hearts with different children before I realized the true reason the teens avoided school. In the eyes of the youth, it made more sense to stay home and work on “useful” skills such as the woodworking or sewing that would provide them with an income after leaving the center than to waste their time attending school that they would never finish. Marco, one of the older teens was a testament to this way of thinking. A few months earlier he had run away and made a living dancing and juggling on the street for cars waiting for the traffic light to change in Managua, the capital. These undervalued hobbies were profitable in the Nicaraguan context, and took precedent to school for some of the youth, especially the older teens. After hearing of such stories I was ashamed that I had criticized them so harshly, without seeking to understand before jumping to conclusions. Looking back, I see how I privileged what I perceived as right and important over what the youth knew to be their reality. In these experiences, I had unknowingly begun to see the manifestations of what I later discovered to be the identities of the Self and the Other.

The Paternalism of Partnership and Active Listening

It wasn’t until after my internship had completed, upon reading The Paternalism of Partnership by Maria Bazz, that I learned of the concept of the passive and resisting Other in contrast to the knowledgeable and unappreciated Self, in which the Nicaraguans were the Other and I was the Self in my situation. As Bazz describes, the notion of the Self and the Other is often manifested in unethical partnerships created between powerful and wealthy Northern organizations and less-well-off Southern organizations. Most problems, it seems, tend to stem from this initial separation of identities and stereotyping. By seeing the Nicaraguans as the Other, a distance and separation was immediately created, fed by self-fulfilling prophecies actualized by differences in culture, customs and perspective (Bazz 47-50). Though acknowledging our differences is not necessarily an issue, the problem arose when this act of othering was used in place of an attempt at active listening and understanding. When the stereotypes resonated more than my experiences with the actual people, the problems were exacerbated.

Throughout the book, Bazz explains how the different origins and perspectives experienced by the partner – as opposed to by the donor –  agency may lead to miscommunication over roles in the partnership. When people don’t share the same understandings, unethical partnerships are forged. These unethical partnerships take differents forms, such as cases when a dominant donor organization takes advantage of its partner, a dependent and unsustainable partnership is formed, stereotypes are exacerbated and/or when a partner organization takes on role play to get the resources it needs. This role play can be seen when a partner organization purposefully acts or presents itself as a “third world” or “poor” organization is expected to (read: being low on supplies, needing assistance in development, etc.) in order for the donor organization to continue supporting it or providing it with resources. After reading The Paternalism of Partnership and reflecting on my time in Nicaragua, I realized that I had been a participant in an unequal partnership.

Apart from experiencing cases where stereotypes were intensified and identities were distorted, I also witnessed what I perceived as possible role-playing take place in the youth center. The children in the organization seemed to engage in role-play as attention-starved and loving youth in order to get the most resources from volunteers and workers (the resources took the form of gifts, outings outside of the residential care complex, and food). Those who did not entertain the idea of role playing were seen as distant, unengaged and even problematic by visitors, and did not receive as many resources and fun opportunities to go on fieldtrips as the others did. The staff of the organization would also try to look for resources from volunteers – mentioning birthdays coming up or a lack of medicine (even though there was medicine in storage) in order to get volunteers to pay for some of these things. This lack of agency in being true selves in partnership was concerning to me. Though I did not explicitly see donor organizations take advantage of the youth center in which I worked, I noticed that upon coming back to the States I had gained a valuable experience, a resume booster and plenty to talk about, while the organization had received little to nothing in return. This unequal exchange unsettled me, as did the the concept of the Self and Other that I had lived out in my time there.

Upon returning to Haverford and realizing the full impact of my time in Nicaragua, I began to look more into the elements of a partnership, the idea of what an equal partnership looked like, and how it could be achieved and maintained. I wanted to make sure that my experience was not repeated in other places, or that at least the concepts of unequal partnerships were explored and reflected upon before embarking internationally, nationally, or simply to a neighboring city. Though I am ultimately glad about the experiences that I had in Nicaragua and the way they later shaped my interests and passions, I still believe there are alternatives to the internship I had which are more ethical. I spent part of the last year researching ethical partnerships – and that’s the topic of my next post that will come out in a week. As I begin my last year in college, I still continue to search for ways that my mistakes can be avoided by others and how to best educate people in the creation and maintenance of ethical partnerships. Through careful, guided, and reflective research and learning with others, we can help to eliminate and fix partnerships that have gone astray, as well as learn how to best challenge our biases and keep them in check.

Baaz, Maria Eriksson. The Paternalism of Partnership: A Postcolonial Reading of Identity in Development Aid. New York: Zed , 2005. Print.

Originally from Argentina, Maria Padrón is in her senior year as a psychology major at Haverford College. 

Part II: Intersectionality, Power, and Lessons Learned: Avoiding Paternalistic Partnerships 

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