Mi Experiencia en Perú: Living and Learning in Tacna

Posted August 5th, 2009 at 12:04 pm.

by Mary Florence Sullivan

As my flight pulled into Tacna’s little airport, I pressed my nose against the airplane window to catch my first nocturnal glimpse of the desert city. Exhaustion from the long journey turned into adrenaline as I gathered my bags from the overhead compartment and proceeded down the airplane’s stairs into the arrival gate. With the help of some Peruvian friends I’d made on the plane, I clumsily arranged my heavy bags onto a cart and wheeled my way outside where the families and friends of the passengers were waiting to greet them. My nerves melted away as I gazed at the restless crowd: two women, one in her fifties and one much younger, were standing at the very front of the crowd, beaming and holding a small cardboard sign that read, “Bienvenida Florencia.” Before I could make out the words on the sign, I knew who they were. After hugs and warm smiles were exchanged, they introduced themselves as Hermana Zaida and Hermana Martha.

Weeks later in my journey I found out they also knew who I was—one of the few clearly American-looking people on the plane—the moment they saw me. They told me they could tell by the excitement and youthfulness of my energy that I was the one coming to live with them. Our taxi ride home was filled with “no comprendo” and “como se dice,” as my Spanish was sub-par during my first few weeks in Tacna. Yet despite the misunderstandings and silences as I racked my brain for the Spanish phrases I knew, the warmth and gentleness radiating from the patient smiles of these Sisters of St. Joseph were extraordinary. I knew at that moment that volunteering at the school of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet Fe y Alegria San José would be an incredible, life-changing summer.

My first week in Tacna was a slow and gradual orientation to the life I would be living for the coming months. I was shown my duties in the house: the weekly chores and breakfast duty and how to wash my clothes by hand on the roof. I was instructed that all drinking water must be boiled before it was safe to consume. The sisters advised me to rest my first few mornings there, not to rise at 5:30 a.m. as would become my custom later on in the trip. Simultaneously, I was introduced to the customs of the school, following the sisters around like a shadow as they were pulled one way and then another, trying to complete their daily tasks but having to respond to every other issue at school that day.

The first day I walked through the cement courtyard, trailing the sisters nervously, I was followed by pressing eyes and soft whispers from the students. With my skin color and purple hair I invited questions and shy “Hola señorita” greetings from the bolder students. I will never forget Loida who walked straight up to me on my second day of school. With her best friend in tow, she greeted me with the customary kiss on the cheek, all the while asking in cryptic, rapid Spanish where I was from and whether or not New York was beautiful. Her enthusiasm welcomed me into this new, unfamiliar world. Every day following, I looked for her among the sea of children making their way to class in between marble games and jump rope. She similarly sought me out, greeting me with her wide smile and calling, “¡Maria Florencia! ¿Como está?”

I joined Hermana Martha in her first-grade class during my second week in Tacna. She was the teacher’s assistant and left to tend to other work in the school after I caught on to the job’s responsibilities. I was swarmed with questions on my first day in the class, like, “Why do you speak English?” and “Why is your hair purple?” and “Why do you live in the States?” I tried to answer the best I could, all the while trying to keep the 5- and 6-year-olds focused on practicing their cursive and learning addition. I fell in love with the class, the genuine happiness and excitement they felt over the simplest things, and the love and compassion that radiated from them as they greeted me with hugs and kisses each morning and, later, when they begged me to stay after my two months there were over.

It was a taxing job, in that the children in the class needed so much help. The class held 26 first-graders, all of them under the supervision of one teacher. She was excellent, and they listened to her with the utmost respect. It was difficult, though, seeing as the school has no special education classes or services for children with learning disabilities. I was there to help and work as much as I could one-on-one with the children who needed special attention. But they needed so much more than that. The frustration behind the eyes of the children burned each time they made a mistake or “couldn’t do it.” I sat down with patience and understanding, yet it was very difficult most days to keep them after the bell rang at the close of school to finish their work and ensure they understood it. In the afternoons I would help Profesora Fortunada with her daily tutoring sessions for second graders. They were the children with the greatest behavioral issues who also had trouble with reading and math. We worked strenuously from two in the afternoon until four, practicing addition, spelling, and pronunciation.

Throughout the second half of my stay in Tacna, I began to help out in the English classes of the middle school-aged students in the evening. The class needed help with pronunciation, so I would go over lists of English words for family members, the class repeating each word after me in unison. Sometimes we had to repeat certain words more than once, and they would giggle at the difference between my thick American-English pronunciation and their Peruvian-Spanish. I began a unit “Parts of the Body” while I was there, teaching the entire class the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” standing on an empty desk in the front of the room. They were so excited to learn this elementary school classic, wanting to stay after the closing bell rang to make sure they knew it perfectly. A few of the students ran up to me after the class ended to hear me pronounce “ear” a few times more.

At the Sisters’ house, I lived communally with five Peruvian Sisters of St. Joseph: Hermana Zaida, Hermana Gloria, Hermana Rosa, Hermana Martha, and Hermana Sonia. Each weekday morning we would awake for prayer and meditation at 6:20, and immediately following we would enjoy breakfast together. That was one of my favorite times of day—the calm, reflective start to the day, everyone enjoying a meal together, all gathering before what was certainly going to be a busy day. Each afternoon we would somehow manage to meet for a large lunch around one, taking a little break from the 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. school day. Then at dinnertime, we would be together again to relax, sometimes by playing games or watching movies in the evenings. On weekends, weekly chores and lunch duty were shared among the house. Weekends were also the time for laundry (by hand), an extremely humbling and meditative experience for me as I wrung out my sheets and jeans deep in thought about the cross-cultural differences and similarities.

Living in a city where I was one of very few non-Peruvians, I learned more about their culture and lifestyle than I would have ever imagined. Where I lived there were no supermarkets or movie theaters. We bought fresh bread each morning from the corner bakery and fresh vegetables and meat each weekend from the open-air markets, and our dry or canned goods came from one of the hundreds of tiendas in the city. Poverty was apparent everywhere. All of the students at the school came from poor families, and most merchants were selling their wares to buy food for dinner that night. We didn’t live in the wealthiest part of town. At the bottom of my street, a family owned a tire business. They would wake early each morning, carry all of the tires outside for display on the street, clean them several times when they became dirty with all of the dust, and put them away again each night after dark. My street ended with an unpaved road, surrounded by small city farms on rooftops and by houses that resembled sunken shacks. The simplicity of their lives was met with gratefulness instead of anger and discontent. Very few material possessions and opportunities were taken for granted. It was something different and refreshing to observe from what I’ve been used to in the United States.

My final day in the first-grade classroom was one of the most special days I have experienced in my life. That morning when I walked in the classroom, Profesora Ines signaled for each of them to close their notebooks for a little while because it was time to say goodbye to Florencia. They quickly put away their notebooks into their desks, and stared at Prof. Ines; my mother, who had arrived the night before and was taking pictures; and me. She told them that I would be going home and asked if they had anything to say to me. Many raised their hands and sheepishly told me, “Thank you, Maria Florencia, for all you have done for us. I love you!” My eyes filled up as they began a song they had prepared as a parting gift, the close of which opened the floor for little David to present me with a small present and thank you note from the class. I gave him a huge hug and kiss, at which point the entire class ran over and turned our hug into a group hug. Afterwards, I handed out three new pencils and one eraser to each of the students to remember me by. They were so pleased to receive the gifts, and the smiles that lit up their faces made every minute worth it. The sad “goodbye’s” and “I’ll miss you’s” that morning made it extremely difficult to leave Fe y Alegria. I promised I would come back.

I was struck by the realization that no matter how different two cultures may seem, certain things always stay the same. In a country where it isn’t customary for an adult to live far away from their family home, a country where children help their parents sell their goods in the marketplace (whether by holding a towel to protect their for-sale chocolates from the sun or by giving a sales pitch for their tired mother), a country where a rich, ancient culture is vastly embedded within the customs of modern life, a country where, despite how bad a state one may think the government is in, patriotism still runs strong, children are the same.

They still play tag and pretend games during recess. They argue over who gets to sit on the pillows in the library. They goof off in class while the teacher isn’t looking. The boys tease the girls by stealing their pencils, and the girls tell on them. Middle school-aged teens are shy and confused about themselves. Mothers scold their children in the streets for straying too far from sight while playing, and children beg their parents for an ice cream or a sweet dessert from the street vendors.

I was frustrated when I returned home, trying to figure out how my plans to become a classics major had anything to do with solving the problems of today’s world. Through much thought and reflection about my trip, I began to realize that we can solve problems by looking to the past, as a classics major does, and by looking at how certain issues from ancient history may have influenced developing issues today. Among the cultures of the world there are aspects that are similar universally, whether they are games between children, the acknowledgment of certain human rights, or the importance of a peaceful society. Quite obviously there are also innumerable differences between different cultures and within specific cultures—some people may not identify with the dominant, or accepted, culture. As one who studies ancient societies and researches the history of these cultures to understand where certain values held by society stem from, where we come from, and why we are the way we are, I am able to gain a deeper and unique perspective about the workings of the world. I am able to understand the differences that diversify us as well as the similarities that unite us and use these findings to resolve conflicts and rectify injustices that plague certain societies in our global community. It is crucial to take in a society’s culture before attempting to understand the origins of a conflict or the source of an injustice present within that society. We can use this insight to solve the social justice issues of today’s world.

This experience has totally transformed my life, and I will never lose what I have learned nor the love and the warmth that I have gained from the incredible people I met throughout my entire journey: the students, the family of Fe y Alegria, other friends I made along the way, and, of course, the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Con mucho cariño, muchisimas gracias.

Mary Florence Sullivan ’11 is currently working toward a classical languages major with a concentration in peace and conflict studies. She is a member of the student activist group One World and the student-run theater group People in Color. She will be studying abroad in Europe next fall.

Filed under: Issue 3 by Julie Zaebst

Comments are closed.