Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Nicaragua

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color 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 Nicaragua, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Nicaragua.

Outside of Nicaragua’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. While the people of Nicaragua are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners, 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 Nicaragua, 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; 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. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Nicaragua has a culture where machismo is prevalent, and women’s traditional roles may be undervalued. While there have been quite a few female leaders in Nicaragua over the years, including former President Violeta Chamorro, most women still find their primary role in society to be in the home. There is a high dropout rate among girls in secondary school, a very high incidence of teenage pregnancy, and a high rate of irresponsible paternity, all of which reinforce the highly defined gender roles. Peace Corps/Nicaragua has a very active gender and development committee that works with Volunteers and Nicaraguans alike to raise consciousness and support culturally appropriate activities that address issues of gender inequality among girls, boys, women and men in the field.

Female Volunteers may find that being a single woman living alone is considered odd. They may receive more inappropriate and unwanted attention from men than they are accustomed to receiving. They may have to work harder than male Volunteers to gain the respect of Nicaraguan colleagues in the workplace or they may experience resentment from Nicaraguan women for their male-like position of authority in the community. Female Volunteers should keep a low social profile and practice discretion in public to avoid developing an undesirable reputation in their community (e.g., wear conservative clothing, refrain from smoking in public, drinking in bars, or even dancing with men).

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

In Nicaragua, skin color can be the most common way people identify one another. Terms such as moreno (colored person), negro (black), chele (white), and Chino (Asian) are considered by many to be socially acceptable. Therefore, Volunteers of color face constant verbal and nonverbal reminders that their skin color is different from that of the majority. Nicaragua has a large Afro-Caribbean population along its east coast, so African-American Volunteers are often confused with people from those communities or believed to be from Cuba. Negative stereotypes sometimes exist as well.

After an initial settling-in period at their sites, however, most African-American Volunteers have very positive experiences living and working throughout Nicaragua. Hispanic Volunteers also face challenges. At first they are often thought to be Nicaraguans or Central Americans. Even when people realize they are neither, they commonly have difficulty believing Hispanics are “real” Americans. It may also be hard for community members to accept that a Hispanic Volunteer is not a native Spanish speaker. However, most Hispanic Volunteers find they are welcome and readily accepted in Nicaragua.

Asian-American Volunteers may be associated with characters in the martial arts movies that play repeatedly in urban areas of Nicaragua. Females may be viewed according to the mystique with which Asian women are often portrayed on television or in movies. Asian-American Volunteers may encounter stereotypes similar to those in the United States, such as the view that all Asians are extremely intelligent, good business people, and rich. Volunteers who are not of Chinese descent may be frustrated when Nicaraguans do not consider them Americans or associate them with a different ethnic background. For example, Korean-American Volunteers may be labeled as Chinese. For the most part, however, Nicaraguans are curious about and interested in the heritage of Asian Americans and welcome them into their homes and communities.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

Respect comes with age in Nicaragua. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. Older Volunteers may feel isolated among younger Volunteers, who may not be able to provide the desired personal support. In other instances, younger Volunteers may look to older Volunteers for advice. Some senior Volunteers find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, while others choose not to fill this role.

During training, senior Volunteers may experience frustration in having most of their time and activities scheduled for them.

It may be difficult to adjust to living with a host family where you have to adapt to the family’s way of doing things. Also, adjustment to the learning environment, which includes intensive hands-on training, doing research, interviews and homework, may prove unexpectedly challenging. Another issue for some seniors in training is the feeling of being left out of the social activities, or not having the same interests as trainees in their 20s. At the same time, the life experiences that seniors bring with them to the training process can enrich others and provide a secure base to deal with the challenges that the cultural adaptation process brings.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

To fit into the conservative Nicaraguan culture, most Volunteers find that there are things about themselves that are better to not share with their neighbors. Most gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers find that it is more comfortable and convenient for them to be discreet about their sexual orientation with the people in their community because Nicaraguans generally view gay or lesbian relationships as morally wrong. Given the prejudices in the country toward gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, being “out” at one’s site could seriously jeopardize one’s professional image and effectiveness. Engaging in homosexual sex is prohibited by law in Nicaragua, but this law is not generally enforced.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Nicaragua is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, but an influx of Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other Christian denominations is changing the religious makeup of the country. Non-Christian groups are practically nonexistent, however, which can be a challenge for practicing Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other groups. Most Nicaraguans are curious about and tolerant of other religions, but there is a lack of education about the history, beliefs, and practices of other faiths.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

As a disabled Volunteer in Nicaragua, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. In Nicaragua, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. In addition, there is little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States.

As part of the medical screening process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Nicaragua without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Nicaragua staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers

Currently Peace Corps/Nicaragua has a number of married couples serving successfuly in-country. Being a married couple in the Peace Corps has its advantages and challenges. It helps to have someone by your side to share your experience with, but there are also cultural expectations that can cause stress in a marriage. The most important thing to remember is that you are in a foreign country with new rules. As long as you remain open-minded you will have a successful service. The possible issues listed below will also depend on the size of the community you will be living in.

In Nicaragua, a married man may be encouraged to be the more dominant member in the relationship. He may also be encouraged by the local culture to make decisions independent of his spouse’s views and to have his wife serve him. He may be ridiculed if he performs domestic tasks. On the other hand, a married woman may find herself in a less independent role than that to which she has been accustomed. She may also experience a more limited social life in the community than single Volunteers (since it may be assumed that she will be busy taking care of her husband). Additionally, she may be expected by the local culture to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. Competition between a couple may become a difficulty, especially if one spouse learns faster than the other (e.g., language skills, job skills). There also may be differences in job satisfaction and/or different needs between spouses.

Younger Volunteers may look to couples for advice and support. Married couples also are likely to be treated with more respect because the community sees marriage as a responsibility. They may be asked when they will have children.

During pre-service training, couples will be placed in separate host families to aid in their individual language, cultural and technical learning process. In most instances, you will have opportunities for some kind of communication or periodic visits throughout this timeframe. Please contact the country desk unit or your placement officer for more information.