Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Isabel Gross, May 28, 2021

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


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00:00:00 - Interest in Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Hello. Today is May 28th, 2021.

Segment Synopsis: Gross grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and heard a lot of stories about the Peace Corps. She wanted to know more about development, to be a part of a community, and to serve. In college she studied Spanish and anthropology so was sent by Peace Corps to Latin America after her graduation in May, 2017 from Haverford College (in Pennsylvania). She was accepted by Peace Corps in February, 2018. In high school and college she volunteered in Bogota, Columbia where she taught music. In Peace Corps she went to a rural area where jobs are agriculture-related and weather determines livelihood.

Keywords: Applying; Childhood; College majors; Colombia; Family; Friends; Home; Language skills; Languages; Spanish (language); Travel; Traveling; Undergraduate education; Volunteering; Washington, D.C.; Weather

Subjects: Childhood; Columbia; Education, Higher; Families; Guatemala; International travel; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Travel; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Washington (D.C.)

GPS: Washington, D.C.
Map Coordinates: 38.904722, -77.016389
GPS: Haverford College
Map Coordinates: 40.009722, -75.307222
GPS: Bogota, Columbia
Map Coordinates: 4.711111, -74.072222
00:04:56 - Peace Corps application process / Beginning her work in Guatemala

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Partial Transcript: Okay, so you had a, a, a strong interest in, um, Spanish language and, and, um, culture, I guess...

Segment Synopsis: Gross had learned Spanish and was encouraged in languages by her parents. Her mother is a translator. She loves to communicate with people in their native languages. The application process had minor snags. When she had technical questions about agriculture she was at a loss. She had to make sure she would not have an interruption in service. She went to an agricultural program where teaching was important to train agricultural leaders. Counterparts were to provide expertise. However, she went in an election year when many had to participate in campaigning so there were no community partners. Her teaching experience was important. She worked on gender inclusion, domestic violence, and women's entrepreneurship.

Keywords: Applying; Family; Gender roles; Language skills; Languages; Male-dominated society; Political campaigns; Role of women; Spanish (Language); Teaching; Technical training; Training; Travel; Treatment of women; Women; Workshops

Subjects: Families; International travel; Language and culture; Language and languages; Non-governmental organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Political campaigns; Social norms; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:09:30 - Peace Corps training

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Partial Transcript: Well, before we get too much into your service, tell me about training. Where did you guys do your training?

Segment Synopsis: Training was in Antigua, Guatemala, a big city, then in Magdalena, a village. Training was similar to school. Her Spanish was superior so she took time to learn history, about the people, and agriculture. Language was difficult for some. There were about 36 volunteers in her cohort originally and 33 swore in, after attrition for language or choice. The group was Baktun 11, when Peace Corps renumbered, after being there since 1963. There were major highways with farms right on the road. When a bus killed a chicken, people tried to see if they could salvage it for food. They had a Mayan ceremony that was a privilege.

Keywords: Buses; Friends; Language Proficiency Index (LPI); Language barriers; Language fluency; Language skills; Language training; Languages; Pre-service training; Spanish (Language); Training

Subjects: Language and culture; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Training; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Antigua, Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 14.566667, -90.733333
00:15:55 - Culture and religion in Guatemala

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Partial Transcript: Now you were experienced with travel and living in other countries before, um, you, went to, um, Guatemala, which is not true for a lot of Peace Corps volunteers.

Segment Synopsis: For Gross, the large indigenous Mayan population was different from her previous travel experiences. Her first host family (in training) had had their Mayan culture forced out of them. She had not known deeply religious people, as most are in Guatemala. There is nothing to do on Sundays. There were different Christian sects. It was somewhat of a struggle for her to relate to different beliefs. She had a Quaker education and was from a Jewish family. Living with a host family was an adjustment. She felt no control over what and how much she ate or having privacy. She had nothing in common with the host mother, who was not interested in education. The second host mother (at her site) was curious and intellectual and Gross could relate more to her. It was a good lesson in Peace Corps to live with someone with whom there is little in common. Having a host family is often a safety issue. A host family is good for language and insights into daily life and culture. It helps in acclimation.

Keywords: Daily routines; Family; First impressions; Food; Food culture; Host families; Host mothers; Jewish people; Living situation; Personal growth; Safety

Subjects: Acculturation; Culture; Education, Higher; Food habits; Interpersonal relations and culture; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:22:33 - On site work

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Partial Transcript: Okay, so then after training, where were you assigned?

Segment Synopsis: Gross went to Nebaj, a community in the state of Quiche, which she thinks was the most wonderful. It is 7 hours north of Antigua in the mountains. The people speak Achi, a Mayan language. The hills have a lovely mountain mist in the morning. People grow corn, beans, squash, and some other vegetables. Some have animals. The size of the population is uncertain. The general area has maybe 50,000. Her project was with the Ministry of Agriculture to spread best agricultural practices however, she mostly worked with local groups and the U.N. She was to accompany agronomists to help them teach more interactively. In practice, she worked with local groups who knew the people, the climate, and techniques better. She helped to develop the training and build up local leaders. Large group trainings with local leaders were held about gender, teaching methods, and budgeting. The plan was one she developed as she saw the need when the project did not work as designed. That was frustrating for some time. People respected foreigners and she took advantage of that. She used the internet for information when questions came up.

Keywords: Daily routines; Flexibility; Food culture; Foreigners; Gender roles; Land; Languages; Local languages; Locals; Personal growth; Rural areas; Teaching; Towns; Training; Weather; Workshops

Subjects: Communication and culture; Finance; Lifestyles; Non-governmental organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Social norms; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Workshops

GPS: Antigua, Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 14.566667, -90.733333
00:30:48 - Creativity in projects / Life with her host family

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Partial Transcript: Did, uh--s--this, uh, issue with the, uh--your local counterparts probably affected others in your group too...

Segment Synopsis: Gross says that many in her cohort struggled. She was not accepted by her counterparts and had to be active in other ways. Other volunteers had more acceptance at first then were inactive when the political situation was difficult. For many months there were struggles. Most learned that the backbone of agriculture in Guatemala were local groups who were invested in improving their communities. Being creative and resourceful is necessary. Everyone was productive in school gardens, composting, training, greenhouses, or other projects. Training had mentioned being somewhat open but the circumstances were unusual. Her host family was great. She had asked to be with people of the indigenous community with a language other than Spanish. They spoke Ixil. She still communicates with the family. The host mom was religious and conservative but very much a feminist. She is a teacher who reads a lot. She was wise. Her children were grown and she did not like being alone. Conversations with her were frequent. Gross got a dog with which she hiked a lot. She fit in the community in some ways. She identifies as gay and that was not acceptable in her community and had to be kept quiet. The people only have evangelical music and Gross was musical in other genres. There are traditional instruments which the evangelical conversions may have stifled. She played the violin there and people were interested in that. For Christmas, people made nativity scenes and carried them through the streets. She played music as they caroled.

Keywords: Blending in; Daily routines; Diversity; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Family; Flexibility; Fluency; Food; Food culture; Friends; Friendships; Gender roles; Holidays; Homosexuality; Host families; Host family; Host mothers; Host sisters; Inclusion; LGBTQ+ community; LGBTQ+ volunteers; Language skills; Languages; Living conditions; Living situation; Local languages; Local people; Locals; Male-dominated society; Mindsets; Mothers; Orientation; Out of place; Pre-service training; Relationships; Role of women; Sexuality; Spanish (Language); Teachers; Training; Volunteering; Women

Subjects: Acculturation; Communication and culture; Culture; Families; Food habits; Friendship; Homophobia; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and culture; Language and languages; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Non-governmental organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Political campaigns; Sexual orientation; Social norms; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:41:12 - Adjustment to life in Guatemala / Language issues

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Partial Transcript: You're making it sound really easy so far. But was there--did you have trouble adjusting to anything there?

Segment Synopsis: Gross felt very prepared and she had wanted to join Peace Corps all her life, yet the early days in Guatemala were difficult. She had not learned the local language, Ixil, one of 25 languages of Guatemala. There are too many languages to teach them all in training. She had one day of Ixil training. Her host mother spoke Spanish but the people she needed to work with did not. She tried hard, then was let down each day. She had to set new definitions of success. It took a long time, probably a year, to feel more confident. Meanwhile, she studied, walked around the town, and spent time alone. Her biggest lesson was figuring out how to interact with the people. That is something she is grateful for.

Keywords: Daily routines; Dialects; Expectations; Family; Flexibility; Fluency; Host mothers; Language barriers; Language skills; Language training; Languages; Local languages; Local people; Orientation; Personal growth; Training

Subjects: Acculturation; Communication and culture; Culture; Culture shock; Emotions; Families; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and culture; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:45:28 - Homosexuality / Safety of women

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned earlier that there wasn't an awareness of gay culture at all. Were you able to live openly?

Segment Synopsis: Gross was not able to live openly as a gay person. To the people there, family is extremely important so homosexuality does not fit in their thinking. She did not discuss it. As far as the difficulties of women, she saw sexism and crude behavior among male agronomists. She did not feel sexual harassment in indigenous communities. In other communities, when she visited other volunteers, she did feel unsafe at times. In her community there had been a genocide. Those who helped rebuild were foreigners and that respect seemed to carry over to her. She associated with other volunteers, even those who would not have been commonly friends even though they were Americans. That was a valuable experience.

Keywords: Dangerous; Dangers; Diversity; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Family; Fears; Foreigners; Friends; Friendships; Gender roles; Homosexuality; Host sisters; Jewish; LGBTQ+; LGBTQ+ community; Local people; Locals; Male-dominated society; Personal growth; Safety; Scared; Sexual assault; Sexuality; Towns; Treatment of women; Women

Subjects: Culture; Families; Friendship; Homophobia; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Lifestyles; Patriarchy; Peace Corps (U.S.); Sexual orientation; Social norms; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:51:25 - Travels in Guatemala / Ixil language and its superstitions

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, when you had some time off, uh, recreation time, time to travel and stuff, what kind of stuff did you do, outside of work?

Segment Synopsis: Gross went to a beautiful park built by Peace Corps volunteers. She visited Cobán where a friend lived. She saw other volunteers near Lake Atitlán where there are a variety of languages and cultures. She visited less than others, being a "site rat." She became good friends with her Ixil teacher. It is not a written language and they discussed that phenomenon and cultural proverbs, superstitions, and idioms. The local people believe twins are magical. She and another volunteer were strong feminists, among other good friends. She went to weddings, betrothal ceremonies, and had other fun times.

Keywords: Family; Food culture; Friends; Friendships; Languages; Local people; Locals; Relationships; Role of women; Travel; Traveling

Subjects: Culture; Families; Food habits; Friendship; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and culture; Language and languages; Manners and customs; Marriage; Peace Corps (U.S.); Social norms; Travel; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Coban, Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 15.483333, -90.366667
GPS: Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Map Coordinates: 14.7, -91.2
00:58:13 - COVID-19 evacuation

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Partial Transcript: And then--so you were almost done with your, your service there--

Segment Synopsis: At first, the information Gross heard about COVID-19 was about a disease in China. Japanese volunteers were insulted and racist jokes began. Gross thought it would be temporary, like bird flu. As Peace Corps volunteers in various countries evacuated, it became clearer that she would have to leave. It was supposed to take 3 days, but then quickly devolved into a rush. She said good-bye quickly. Her last project had just finished so there was some closure. Guatemala had no cases of COVID at the time. She believed if things became bad, it would not be right for a foreigner to take a hospital bed, depriving a local person of care. The airport was quickly closed. She organized transportation for other volunteers back to the capital. They expected to bus through Mexico but a charter became possible after fits and starts. Gross believed the director was resourceful in the chaos. It was 3 weeks from the end of her service. Others were in all phases of their service.

Keywords: Airplanes; Airports; Buses; Close of Service; Closing borders; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19); Dangerous; Dangers; Distance; Districts; Evacuations; Foreigners; Global call for evacuation; Leaving; Peace Corps directors; Rural areas; Safety; Transportation; Travel; Traveling

Subjects: Air travel; COVID-19 (Disease); Evacuation; International travel; Peace Corps (U.S.); Travel; Voluntarism; Volunteers

01:06:48 - Final thoughts

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Partial Transcript: Well, is there anything we missed about your, um, your experience in Guatemala?

Segment Synopsis: Gross says that many may think the Peace Corps experience would be living off the land with no internet or amenities. What she learned is that technology is expanding. People knew many who had emigrated. Sometimes a community had no men, only women left behind after massive migration. She did not expect to be in a place closely connected to the U.S. and being able to tell people about the country. They received remittances and knew people in all phases of migration. She had to talk about the U.S. every day while in Guatemala. She taught English and in class everyone knew the currency exchange and its day to day fluctuation. The U.S. is involved so much all over the world. Getting to know people around the world is important. This is a major reason for Peace Corps' existence. She changed significantly, appreciating the U.S. more. She learned to co-exist with difference.

Keywords: America; Americans; Family; Foreigners; Immigrants; Local people; Locals; Personal growth; Teaching; Travel; Traveling

Subjects: Culture shock; Emigration and immigration; Emotions; Families; Finance; Immigrants; Intercultural communication; International travel; Lifestyle; Peace Corps (U.S.); Social norms; Travel; Voluntarism; Volunteers