Well, Thanksgiving with the volunteers is over now, and it’s a cold week dawning here in Mexico.
This is, a year later than I deserved or had any right to expect, the end of my experience with the Peace Corps. We all came down for different reasons. Some of us for adventure, some of us for altruism, some because whatever the statistics say about recovery, after excelling at good schools, this was the best, or in my case, the only job on offer.
And we worked. We discovered, as I’ve gone over in detail on my other blog, that the Mexico program was special, beholden to and constrained by local interests and bureaucracy, and that we would not be free to pursue the work that was most wanted, most needed. But we did the job that was given to us and labored, on the side, often out of sight and out of sanction of the Peace Corps office in Querétaro, to change our situation and move things toward the good.
We organized through our Volunteer Advisory Council and had candid conversations with staff. We played politics outside of our purview in our parks and tried to shape the program. We went through all the bickering and infighting that is inherent to insular, expatriate communities. But despite our disagreements and through whatever progress we achieved, we managed to make a point of preserving decency, compassion, and solicitousness amongst the body of volunteers, and we used that foundation as a base from which to extend the same generosity of heart to every host country national, every Mexican we met.
Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors of the most personal kind. Every taxi ride, every hitchhike, is by design and by necessity an opportunity to explain what we’re about. Us as people, the Peace Corps as an organization, and the United States as a country. Every volunteer has been through a thousand careful conversations about American values, a thousand attempts to explain the political imperatives and the economic ‘benevolence’ that Mexico has almost always experienced at the end of a bayonet, a rifle, a trade agreement.
Over the last year, those conversations got more difficult and more impassioned, less constrained by the bounds of propriety that the Peace Corps lays out during training. Among ourselves, too, we got louder and more anxious—how can we defend a country to these people when the country as a whole has no interest in defending them, even if they obtain a green card, a passport? How can we claim to be bringing any kind of prosperity or order when back home we’re gunning each other down in the street? How can we stand proudly or confidently or even openly as agents of a state that murders its own?
Alone out in our sites or in regional groups of two or three, those questions never got easier, their answers never clearer. But on the holidays, the American holidays, the high holy days that, like with the Jewish kids where I grew up in Michigan, gathered us up and pulled us away from the rhythms of Mexican life out of all relation with the local calendar, we managed to find some kind of light. On Superbowl Sundays and Fourths of July we took long weekends and annual leave, piled into buses and vans and the backs of pickup trucks and found each other. And being together, the way we found it in us to argue fairly, to listen closely, we reminded ourselves that we all shared something that was worth sharing when we went back to our towns, cities, villages, communities.
Thanksgiving had always been the crux, the apex of this other calendar. My group made it to site two weeks before Thanksgiving, and those few from that group who extended for a third year will all be leaving soon, just weeks after Thanksgiving. Maybe because it is the holiday that is most particular to us, and maybe because it is the holiday that, in a country so light on tradition, depends on the way we did it with our parents and grandparents, Thanksgiving, here in Mexico, has always represented what was best in us.
We started the email threads months in advance. We saved up weeks of pay, schemed ways to find pumpkins, sweet potatoes, live turkeys. We organized trips to the city for wine and allspice, we tried to figure which dishes most represented our families, our states. We bought subscriptions to Spotify and spent money on iTunes, hoarding Dylan and Arlo Guthrie and anything we could remember our parents putting on in the way back when.
And we gathered.
This was the hardest Thanksgiving for us, and maybe the best. James Dykstra, Danielle Salisbury, Ben Weiss, Alex Gareis, Ashley Schnitker, these are people who would live for me if not die for me, people who I was lucky to have ever known, and who in a few weeks will be gone from Mexico and who I will be lucky to a see a handful of times again. So we were melancholy, at points. We had to be. And since I baked the pies that are my annual contribution on the 9th of November, we had other things, all bitter and no sweet, to worry about.
We did what we could. We played euchre and argued about how much garlic is too much and listened to “Alice’s Restaurant.” Because this was it. This was the last hurrah. A year ago, when I was going through my own Close of Service Conference, one of our trainers asked us to write down a couple of thoughts about what we were feeling and to share them, if we liked. I wrote, “I’m not sure I want to not be a volunteer anymore,” without thinking too much about it. The trainer asked me to unpack that, and I wasn’t able to. I had a lump in my throat that I couldn’t talk past or explain at the time.
I know now that I would miss all of it. The ease of explaining who I was and what I was here to do, of coming to a community and working in good faith to improve it. Teaching kids, learning from adults, being if not free then easy, and confident in my work. But not being a volunteer anymore—and in a few weeks, I will be not-a-volunteer in a much more profound way than I have been til now—means losing this society, this better way of talking and loving that we’ve created here.
We can pretend, we can even be genuine when we say that we’ll keep talking, keep meeting up, keep all this going, but no matter how true any or all of that is, this is the end. In good Mexican tradition we made the funeral, this Thanksgiving, not a wake but a celebration, and like good Mexicans, in future years, in the weeks between the Day of the Dead and the fourth Thursday in November, we’ll reach out and send emails and maybe even meet up to make food and offer it in the graveyard of what we had and lost.
I don’t know what I think about this election, or maybe I know too many things about what I think about this election for them to fit into words or pictures or a podcast or anything less than a way of living through it and living through it with and for everyone I love.
What I know, and what I hope, is that all of us, those who are staying in Mexico and those who are going home, is not that we can take it with us, this thing that is dead or shortly to die, but that we can build it out, duplicate it, multiply it, give it children.
Things are, I think, about to change, drastically, and for the worse. But before this Thanksgiving and before the next one and before every Thanksgiving from now until we turn things around or until the world we know swims under the warm oceans, we can do a little, among ourselves, to fight the ignorance and the hate, and stand together, in love, the way I was lucky enough to stand with these people, here.