Playing Cultural Catch-Up

It’s June of l963 and I’m 21, a freshly minted liberal arts graduate. I join the Peace Corps. I am in one of the first groups sent to Colombia. With little life experience, virtually no skills and less than a burrito’s worth of Spanish I accept the mandate of my country to engage in spreading the superior culture of the United States to the unsophisticated and unschooled of the world’s underdeveloped countries.

I am off to bring the American way of doing things -- the “right” way to do things -- to Colombia.

It is not surprising that at 21 I buy into this concept. What is somewhat mystifying, though, is that no one then recognizes the consummate arrogance on which the Peace Corps is premised. Is the United States really so much more advanced than these other countries, are our values so superior to theirs, that we can send them legions of unskilled ingénues actually believing they will improve the lives of their citizens? The passage of time and developments in our country have provided a clear, unqualified answer.

In June of l963 President Kennedy has not yet been assassinated. Only a few see the consequences of our Vietnam involvement looming. It is the era of the New Frontier. Americans, prompted by their Camelot president, are sincerely asking what they can do for their country. Many inexperienced and enthusiastic college graduates answer by volunteering for the Peace Corps. The cartoon images of the day are pith-helmeted explorers amazing grass-skirted natives in backward lands by creating fire with the flick of a Zippo lighter. The Peace Corps volunteers launch forward believing they will amaze the natives by showing and teaching them America’s better way of doing things.

In l963 Colombia is best known for its export of coffee and emeralds, not the cocaine of today. It is a country, we are taught, that sorely needs the political processes we Americans have perfected. We Peace Corps volunteers intend to fill those needs.

Our jingoism, naiveté and unjustified righteousness combine to make us perceive Colombian culture as backward and inferior. A few examples. Colombian universities. Now this is really amazing. Periodically the students -- the students, for crying out loud -- go on strike. That’s right, strike. Just like the teamsters. They actually shut down the universities. Shut them down. Like stop classes, invade the president’s office, and hold faculty members hostage until they get what they want. To an American Peace Corps volunteer in 1963 this is a preposterous concept.

But that’s not the only example of a Colombian’s backward culture. They have this thing about last names. For these people one last name is not enough. Oh, no. You have to have two last names; like Gomez de Vega or Munoz-Perez. Somehow -- get this -- they use both their mother’s and their father’s last names at the same time. Go figure. Talk about backward. Well, a Peace Corps enlistment lasts only two years, this name thing isn’t that big a deal, and I can probably get away with remembering only one of the last names anyhow.

Now here’s the kicker. And truly illustrates the depth and breadth of Colombia’s inferiority to the United States: “The Lottery”. Yes, Colombia has a daily lottery. It’s run by the government. Tickets are sold on street corners throughout the country. The impoverished, the destitute, the not-so-well-off and even the well-off buy their daily tickets, each knowing they have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than winning. But still they buy the tickets. Talk about backward. No wonder we Americans have been sent to Colombia.

Time is a wonderful teacher. I have watched with wonder the social and cultural advancements we have experienced in the United States over the thirty-plus years since I left Colombia in 1965. Within less than five years of my departure Mario Savio, Mark Rudd and others had disrupted and shut down more American universities and colleges than Colombians had ever dreamed of. The use of double surnames now has become so common in the United States that people who make little league and soccer uniforms know enough to leave lots of room on the backs of the jerseys to accommodate all comers and newspapers have come close to exhausting their supply of hyphens to accommodate increased demands.

The best, of course, is “The Lottery”. Americans have enthusiastically embraced the lottery concept, so much so that when PowerBall payouts start getting into high double digits pedestrian transients nearly double the population of the effete town of Greenwich and even schooled financial planners with MBA’s detour to convenience stores and wait in line to pay good money for the wisp of a chance at a financial Shangri-La.

Yes, America has come a long, long way since I went to Colombia to sow the seeds of our superior culture in that backward land. We have actually caught up. We now have what Colombians had thirty years ago. The people at General Electric used to say that progress is our most important product. I suppose that’s also true of the United States. It just depends on how you define progress.