Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with James Burchfield, December 9, 2020

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries

 

Transcript
Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Index
Search this Index
X
00:00:11 - Motivation for joining Peace Corps

Play segment

Partial Transcript: This is Evelyn Ganzglass. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Somalia from 1966 to 1968. Uh, today is December 9, 2020. And I am interviewing James Burchfield who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala from 1973 to, um, December 1975. And then after, uh, an earthquake, he returned as a Volunteer again from 1976 to 1977.

Segment Synopsis: In 1973, Burchfield graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in forestry. Burchfield was looking for adventure and an opportunity to use his skills creatively. Many graduates from Burchfield's university had entered the Peace Corps. Burchfield was recently married. With encouragement from friends, Burchfield and his wife applied to the Peace Corps and were assigned to a rural school garden and nutrition program in Guatemala. Burchfield also had a desire to learn Spanish. Both Burchfield and his wife had a positive experience as Volunteers.

Keywords: Applying; College majors; Earthquakes; Encouragement; Friends; Marriage; Returning; Rural areas; Spanish (Language); Undergraduate education; University of Michigan

Subjects: Language and languages; Latin America; Natural disasters; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--1970-1980; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Guatemala; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 15.5, -90.25
GPS: University of Michigan
Map Coordinates: 42.276944, -83.738056
GPS: Latin America
Map Coordinates: -9.066609, -113.32832
00:02:01 - Description of cohort

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Our group was mostly married couples. There were 38 of us in this school gardens group.

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield's cohort was composed of 16 married couples and 6 unmarried individuals. The couples were all part of a new educational program involving gardening and nutrition. The Volunteers were to help introduce new crops to boost the nutrition of the local people.

Keywords: Cohorts; Education programs; Food habits; Food security

Subjects: Guatemala; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 15.5, -90.25
00:03:55 - Reaction of parents to his joining Peace Corps

Play segment

Partial Transcript: What, what did your parents think about all of this? Graduated, got married, and then off he goes.

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield's parents were encouraging but concerned about the poor communication link with Burchfield's post. Burchfield's wife was also excited to go.

Keywords: Anxious; Communication; Excited; Family; Support; Uncertainty

Subjects: Emotions; Families.; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:04:57 - Peace Corps application process

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So, you applied. Was there anything--did it take a long time to, to get into the Peace Corps or was it a pretty straight forward process?

Segment Synopsis: In the U.S., Burchfield had a Forest Service job located in a remote place. The location made it more challenging for Burchfield to complete everything needed for his Peace Corps application. After applying, Burchfield heard nothing for several months until he and his wife got an invitation in the mail to serve in Guatemala starting in a few months. Burchfield's family and his wife's family were both supportive, so the necessary preparations were made in the allotted time.

Keywords: Applications; Applying; Arrangements; Bureaucracy; Difficult; Families; Invitations; Jobs; Mail; Preparation; Rural areas; Support; Traveling; Waiting periods

Subjects: Guatemala; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 15.5, -90.25
00:06:08 - Staging / Pre-service training

Play segment

Partial Transcript: We, uh, staged in, uh, Washington, D.C. for three days and met--[audio cuts out]--our group.

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield's group had a staging in Washington, D.C. The members became lifelong friends and formed a mutual support network. Burchfield describes the varied backgrounds of the cohort members. From staging, the group flew to Guatemala City. Pre-service training was conducted in the city of Antigua where the trainees stayed with host families for 10 weeks. Then, the training site was moved to another town for 4 weeks for technical training and the trainees stayed in a dormitory. Overall, Burchfield found training excellent and the local people welcoming to Americans.

Keywords: Activities; Americans; Antigua (Guatemala); Cohorts; Cultural differences; Cultural training; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Examinations; Exams; Friends; Guatemala City (Guatemala); Hispanic Americans; History; Host families; Inoculations; Language training; Latinx; Professors; Support networks; Swearing in; Technical training; Traveling; Vaccinations; Villages

Subjects: Central America; International travel; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers; Washington (D.C.)

GPS: Washington (D.C.)
Map Coordinates: 38.904722, -77.016389
GPS: Guatemala City (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.613333, -90.535278
GPS: Central America
Map Coordinates: 11.8508485, -93.7676818
GPS: Antigua (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.566667, -90.733333
00:13:13 - Assignment

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Um, and my former wife and I wanted this adventure, so we requested a very remote site. 12 hour bruising bus ride to get there.

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield and his wife were assigned to a primary school in the town of Nebaj. Most of the local people belonged to an ethnic minority and spoke the Ixil language. Through their students and the students' families, Burchfield and his wife were able to integrate with the broader community. The Burchfields taught the children how to build a fenced-in garden and then distributed vegetable seeds donated from the U.S. and bought in Guatemala City with their own living allowances. Burchfield found the work very fulfilling.

Keywords: Activities; Contributions; Distance; El Quiche (Guatemala); Food habits; Food security; Guatemala City (Guatemala); Ixil (Language); Nebaj (Guatemala); Spanish (Language); Supplies; Traveling

Subjects: Finance; Language and languages; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Santa Maria Nebaj (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.408333, -91.147222
GPS: El Quiche (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.03, -91.15
GPS: Guatemala City (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.613333, -90.535278
00:18:41 - Living situation

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Where did you live?

Segment Synopsis: The Burchfields rented a house from one of the two local wealthy coffee plantation owners. Burchfield describes the lifestyle of the local coffee plantation owners with whom he and his wife had a very difficult relationship.

Keywords: Difficult; Housing; Nebaj (Guatemala); Relationships

Subjects: Europe; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Santa Maria Nebaj (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.408333, -91.147222
GPS: Europe
Map Coordinates: 48.0965493, 4.1333519
00:22:23 - Local missionaries

Play segment

Partial Transcript: There was another American couple in the town.

Segment Synopsis: Since the 1950s, another American couple had been living in the town and doing missionary work. While the Burchfields were there, an additional missionary couple arrived. One of their activities was to open a dental clinic. The Burchfields developed a relationship with the local parish priest.

Keywords: Americans; Changes; Dental care; Relationships

Subjects: Health; Interpersonal relations; Non-governmental organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Religion; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:24:04 - Secondary interests

Play segment

Partial Transcript: For two years, we did school gardens.

Segment Synopsis: For two years, the Burchfields developed school gardens in town and in the surrounding communities. The Burchfields learned that the parish priest had an interest in beekeeping. Some other Volunteers in a nearby village became interested in this potential honey project. The Burchfields taught a local friend how to make yogurt. This friend was able to sell the yogurt to foreign tourists who were beginning to come to the town, in part, to buy locally handmade traditional clothing.

Keywords: Changes; Food culture; Food habits; Food security; Foreigners; Friends; Guatemala City (Guatemala); Leaving; Letters; Nebaj (Guatemala); Peace Corps offices; Second Goal; Tourists; Traveling; Villages

Subjects: Germany; International travel; Peace Corps (U.S.); Small business--Developing countries; Teachers; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Guatemala City (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.613333, -90.535278
GPS: Santa Maria Nebaj (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.408333, -91.147222
00:29:01 - Earthquake

Play segment

Partial Transcript: But, everything changed in Guatemala on the fourth of February 1976 when a earthquake of 7.6 magnitude on the Richter scale, about three in the morning, rocked most of the highland.

Segment Synopsis: In 1976, a major earthquake in Guatemala caused damage to numerous adobe buildings resulting in 30,000 deaths. The Burchfields had been back in the U.S. for a month and a half when they got a phone call from the Peace Corps asking them to return to Guatemala and help with re-construction. Accordingly, the Burchfields returned to Guatemala and were given a week of additional training. Burchfield discusses the lack of coordination of the international relief efforts. The Burchfields were sent to the site of their initial pre-service training. However, reconstruction efforts were hampered by the lack of building materials. In Guatemala City, the Burchfields happened to meet the two Volunteers who had expressed interest in the honeybee project. These Volunteers requested help and suggested that the Burchfields return to Nebaj, which they did. One of the assistant Peace Corps directors suggested that the Burchfields help set up a beekeeping cooperative, which they did aided by a donation of 200 beehives from Heifer International and cooperation from the local parish priest. The bee project was successful.

Keywords: Animal husbandry; Beekeeping; Books; Changes; Deaths; Food habits; Food security; Guatemala City (Guatemala); Nebaj (Guatemala); Patzun (Guatemala); Peace Corps directors; Peace Corps offices; San Pedro Sacatepequez (Guatemala); Supplies; Tecpan (Guatemala); Telephone calls; Training; Traveling; Villages; York (Ga.)

Subjects: Bolivia; Caritas; Charities; Earthquakes.; Europe; Finance; Germany; Guatemala; International travel; Italy; Mexico; Natural disasters; Natural disasters.; Non-governmental organizations; Nonprofit organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in horticulture; Volunteers

GPS: Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 15.5, -90.25
GPS: Patzun (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.683333, -91.016667
GPS: Italy
Map Coordinates: 43, 12
GPS: Germany
Map Coordinates: 51, 9
GPS: Tecpan (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.766667, -91
GPS: San Pedro Sacatepequez (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.966667, -91.766667
GPS: Mexico
Map Coordinates: 23, -102
GPS: Europe
Map Coordinates: 48.0965493, 4.1333519
GPS: Santa Maria Nebaj (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.408333, -91.147222
GPS: Bolivia
Map Coordinates: -16.712, -64.666
GPS: York (Ga.)
Map Coordinates: 34.935278, -83.389167
GPS: Guatemala City (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.613333, -90.535278
00:39:03 - Guatemalan Civil War

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Now, this is where the story gets difficult.

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield explains that perhaps starting with Castro in Cuba, Marxist movements started to spread through Latin America. By the late 1970s, there was a nascent Marxist movement in Guatemala based in the region around Nebaj. Initially, the Catholic church supported this movement for social justice. However, the military and those holding political power suppressed these forces in order to maintain the existing system which provided cheap labor to the plantation owners. Accordingly, successful small businesses such as the beekeeping project were seen as a threat to the status quo. Essentially, there was a civil war in Guatemala from 1979 to 1996. Members of the beekeeping co-op became targets of paramilitary forces. The Burchfields eventually had to leave and returned to the U.S. as the violence escalated. Peace Corps evacuated all the Volunteers in the embattled area. The Burchfields visited their work site in 1979 but only stayed one night because it was too dangerous. The beekeeping co-op eventually was dissolved.

Keywords: Anastasio Somosa; Awareness; Chajul (Guatemala); Co-ops; Cooperatives; Cotzal (Guatemala); Dangerous; Dangers; Deaths; Fears; Fidel Castro; Leaving; Nebaj (Guatemala); Regional conflict; Returning; Traveling; Villages; Wars

Subjects: Central America; Cuba; Emotions; Evacuation; Guatemala; History; International travel; Latin America; Nicaragua; Peace Corps (U.S.); Politics and government; Voluntarism; Volunteers; World politics

GPS: Latin America
Map Coordinates: -9.066609, -113.32832
GPS: Cuba
Map Coordinates: 22, -80
GPS: Nicaragua
Map Coordinates: 13.133333, -85.116667
GPS: Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 15.5, -90.25
GPS: Santa Maria Nebaj (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.408333, -91.147222
GPS: San Gaspar Chajul (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.487222, -91.034722
GPS: San Juan Cotzal (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.435278, -91.035556
GPS: Central America
Map Coordinates: 11.8508485, -93.7676818
00:45:56 - Maintaining contact with Guatemala

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Have you stayed in touch with Guatemala after '79 as well?

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield has kept up some contact with friends he made in Guatemala. Burchfield's career as a forester has twice taken him back to Guatemala on biodiversity projects. Although the civil war ended in 1996, Guatemala has since been adversely affected by drugs and gangs. Burchfield feels fortunate to have served while things in Guatemala were relatively nonviolent. Burchfield still tries to support the common people there.

Keywords: Changes; Friends; Guatemala City (Guatemala); History; Peten (Guatemala); Problems; Returning; Support; Traveling

Subjects: Careers; Central America; Emotions; Guatemala; International travel; Interpersonal relations; Mexico; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 15.5, -90.25
GPS: Mexico
Map Coordinates: 23, -102
GPS: Peten (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 16.9, -89.9
GPS: Guatemala City (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 14.613333, -90.535278
GPS: Central America
Map Coordinates: 11.8508485, -93.7676818
00:49:07 - Accomplishments during service

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So, when, when you think back about, um, both tours of duty in, in Guatemala, how do you think about your impact in those communities?

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield feels that his and his wife's main impact was making friendships by demonstrating what typical Americans are like. The creation of the co-op fostered the idea of mutual respect. Burchfield describes various local activities in which he participated. This included playing basketball and being on the town's volunteer fire department.

Keywords: Activities; Americans; Characteristics; Community involvement; Driving; Relationships; Santa Cruz del Quiche (Guatemala); Second Goal

Subjects: Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Santa Cruz del Quiche (Guatemala)
Map Coordinates: 15.03, -91.15
00:54:51 - On-going Peace Corps involvement

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So, I, I know you are involved in the Montana Peace Corps, um, group.

Segment Synopsis: After Burchfield became a forestry professor in Missoula, Montana, he became involved with the local Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group. The members of the group do school presentations and support local refugees. In addition, the members assist the Peace Corps recruiters at the University of Montana and send money to support projects of Volunteers from the local area.

Keywords: Ann Arbor (Mich.); Community involvement; Flathead Lake (Mont.); Friends; Funding; Jobs; John F. Kennedy; Missoula (Mont.); Peace Corps recruiters; Professors; Refugees; Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Support; Third Goal; Traveling; University of Montana

Subjects: Congo; Emigration and immigration; Eritrea; Immigrants; Iraq; Peace Corps (U.S.); Schools; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Missoula (Mont.)
Map Coordinates: 46.8625, -114.011667
GPS: Flathead Lake (Mont.)
Map Coordinates: 47.901667, -114.104167
GPS: Iraq
Map Coordinates: 33, 44
GPS: Eritrea
Map Coordinates: 15, 39
GPS: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Map Coordinates: 3, 24
GPS: University of Montana
Map Coordinates: 46.86, -113.985278
GPS: Ann Arbor (Mich.)
Map Coordinates: 42.281389, -83.748333
00:58:14 - Reflections on the Peace Corps

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I guess, the one, the one thing I want to say is, when I think about how many Peace Corps Volunteers there's been over the 60 years of its life, it's less than 300,000.

Segment Synopsis: Burchfield experienced so much personal growth as a Volunteer that he hopes that many more Americans can do the same, especially in light of America's international commercial presence. Burchfield learned to be resourceful and self-reliant. Burchfield encourages other interested people to join the Peace Corps.

Keywords: Advice; Comfort zones; Encouragement; Personal growth; Self-confidence

Subjects: Food habits; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers