Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Paraguay
In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making a special effort to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of diverse backgrounds are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Paraguay, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Paraguay.
Outside of Paraguay’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical norteamericano behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Paraguay are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Paraguay, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care or avoided altogether; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. You will participate in discussions on diversity and sensitivity during pre-service training and Peace Corps staff will be on call to provide support, but the challenge will ultimately be yours.
In the past 100 years, there has been significant immigration to Paraguay by groups from Europe (principally Italians and Germans), the Middle East (principally Lebanese and Syrians), and Asia (principally Japanese and Koreans). There is also a very small community of Paraguayans of African descent. Some of the immigrants have blended into the general population, but others maintain themselves apart to varying degrees.
Although Volunteers are usually readily accepted by their communities, the constant answering of personal questions, the lack of privacy, being considered a rich foreigner, and the need to be aware of different social norms can be real problems for many Volunteers. As a novelty in the community, you may also be the subject of considerable gossip. In addition, as in most Latin American countries, North American women do not have some of the freedoms to which they are accustomed.
The Peace Corps staff in Paraguay recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training and in-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. You will learn to deal with issues such as depression and stress, as well as how to help other Volunteers when they experience difficulties. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of U.S. culture.
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Machismo manifests itself in obvious and subtle ways, and both Paraguayan men and women generally adhere to male dominance at work, in the home, and in community matters. Female Volunteers may be targets for harassment, particularly if they disregard norms for behavior and dress. Male Volunteers, on the other hand, may be viewed as sexual competitors and be pressured to discuss their “conquests.”
Female Volunteers in Paraguay face the kinds of unwelcome attention from men that Paraguayan women experience. Some of this attention can be avoided by dressing and behaving in culturally appropriate, more conservative manners.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Because of Paraguay’s general lack of experience with diverse ethnic groups, some Volunteers of color have encountered verbal harassment, especially in Asunción or when traveling away from their sites. African Americans are most often mistaken for Brazilians, and due to the commonly held Paraguayan stereotype of the Afro-Brazilian soldier who fought against Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance, Volunteers should be prepared to hear and receive negative remarks about skin color or hair.
Asian-American Volunteers are often mistaken for Koreans or Japanese and may be questioned about whether they are “real Americans.” While Hispanic Volunteers may enjoy some advantages because of their ethnic background, they may also face irritating questions about their “true” nationality or their inability to speak the local languages Spanish and Guaraní.
As a Volunteer of color in Paraguay, you should be prepared to handle offensive remarks or attitudes, which stem primarily from ignorance, and a lack of direct contact with people of color. Once you become established in your community, such harassment will be less common, though you will probably continue to encounter it outside your site. In many cases, these incidents provide opportunities to educate people about America’s diversity. There are Volunteer support groups to address diversity issues in Peace Corps Paraguay.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Although senior Volunteers may encounter hardships related to the rugged living conditions and the difficulties of learning two languages, many have served very successfully in Paraguay. Seniors may find peer support within the Volunteer community to be inadequate, as the majority of Volunteers are under age 25. Seniors have sometimes formed informal support groups to deal with the specific issues seniors share.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Gay and lesbian Volunteers should be aware that homosexuality is considered taboo by most Paraguayans and that they therefore must exercise discretion regarding their sexual orientation. Although Asunción has a cosmopolitan atmosphere, to develop productive social and professional relationships and for reasons of personal security and well-being, most Volunteers find that they must reconcile their lifestyle to the demands of extremely conservative communities. Gay and lesbian Volunteers have a support and resource network that can be of assistance.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Paraguay is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and Paraguayans have little experience with other religions or with people who have no religious affiliation. While Paraguayans tend to be tolerant of non-Catholics, they may be curious about your beliefs, which could lead to seemingly rude behavior. On the whole, however, they recognize a difference between “belief” and “practice,” and some non-Catholic Volunteers simply state that they are not “practicing.” Those who feel uncomfortable skirting the issue in this way usually find that if they state their beliefs in a nonchallenging way, they will be accepted by their community. Be aware that very few Volunteer sites will have a place of worship other than a Catholic church or chapel.
Jewish Volunteers have been surprised to discover a certain degree of anti-Semitism in Paraguay as a result of General Alfredo Stroessner’s open-border policy toward Nazis and World War II war criminals. It is not unusual to see swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti, and Jewish Volunteers should use caution when visiting German communities. It is also advisable to get to know the members of your community before “coming out” as Jewish. Kosher food products and religious paraphernalia are not available in Paraguay, but there is an active Chabad House and a Reform synagogue in Asunción.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Paraguay without unreasonable risk of harm. Peace Corps/ Paraguay staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
That being said, Volunteers with disabilities may face particular challenges as a result of the lack of infrastructure in Paraguay to assist them. They may also find that, as in many parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes toward people with disabilities and may discriminate against them. In spite of these difficulties, physically challenged Volunteers have served successfully in Paraguay.