The Barrios of Manta: A Memoir of the Peace Corps by Rhoda and Earle Brooks



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In February 1962, Earle and Rhoda Brooks, a young sales engineer and his schoolteacher wife, left home and friends in Illinois to serve as members of the Peace Corps in Manta, Ecuador. This book is an account of their life in the Peace Corps. The first book ever written by Peace Corps volunteers, it is a revealing chronicle of personal involvement, of people from vastly different cultures learning to know one another on the level of their common humanity.

Earle and Rhoda begin their story with their decision to enlist as trainees in President Kennedy’s people-to-people grassroots aid program. They describe their jubilation at being accepted, the initial testing in Chicago, and the briefings in New York. With warmth and humor, they recount their experiences during the four-month training period in Puerto Rico. This was a time of trials and learning, of physical exertion and mental and emotional challenge. Of the 100 men and women who had formed their original group, 61, including Earle and Rhoda Brooks, graduated from trainees to volunteers.

Earle and Rhoda were assigned to a community development project in Manta, a small fishing village on the coast of Ecuador. Here they would spend two years, working with the people, helping them to help themselves.

The Brookses’ story of Peace Corps life in Ecuador is no simple success story, no tale of triumph over staggering odds, rather it is one of beginnings, as these two young Americans put all their skills, knowledge, compassion, and ingenuity into an effort to provide humanitarian grassroots help in alleviating poverty and disease.

Their story also shares what they learned from their humble fisher-people friends and neighbors. From their rich and varied experience emerges a picture of Latin American life far different in focus, and in many respects, far truer, than that of learned economists and political pundits. It is an intimate, human picture of a land filled with paradoxes and beset by problems that yield no easy solutions. It is a picture of a quest for learning and sharing, not on a soapbox or in the press, but in the hearts and minds of the common people.

Now, in 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps and fifty years after their decision to join the Peace Corps, Rhoda Brooks has created a new Foreward and Afterword, to highlight the intervening years during which she and her husband adopted two Ecuadorian youngsters, ages 2 and 4, and brought them home to Minnesota. She tells of the growing up years of Carmen and Koki (Ricardo) in a suburban community west of Minneapolis, the birth of their biological son and the adoption of a mixed race daughter three years later. Brooks explores the challenges and opportunities presented in the raising of their bi-racial family, the pain and sorrow of the untimely deaths of her husband Earle and their daughter, Josie, as well as the excitement and apprehension generated by the return to Manta for a visit when the children were in their teens. Brooks continues the Afterword with the return to Manta of her five Ecuadorian grandchildren who, then in their teens, went to explore their roots and meet their own biological grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. She concludes the final part of her story with an update into the lives of her seven grandchildren and the arrival of new great grandson, Brooks.

Excerpt:

THE PEACE CORPS is fifty years old; an anniversary that dazzles me! I was just twenty-six years old and my husband, Earle was twenty-eight when we joined fifty years ago. Now I am in my seventies and Earle is gone, yet I still feel the impact of our experience as strongly as I did on the day we first walked the dusty streets of Manta in Ecuador. What we learned can scarcely be measured. What we shared in skills and understanding has never been quantified, but the impact of those two years on our lives was monumental.

In 1961, when we volunteered for the Peace Corps’ inaugural group, some of our friends and acquaintances chided us: “Why are you doing this? It’s just a ‘Kennedy Kiddie Korps.’” We joined because we felt drawn by the idealistic goal of giving something of ourselves for others. We joined because we needed to live this goal in a practical way—immersing ourselves in a totally new culture, and sharing what skills and knowledge we could each day. We joined because we wished to make the alluring Spanish language our own and because we wanted the personal experience of life in South America, a continent that neighbored our own but which, at that time, was a different world in every other sense.

The hardships of living a simple life among our fishermen neighbors were tougher than we expected, the linguistic challenges more difficult, and the initial lack of response to our effort was disheartening. Two years is a long time to be away from family and friends—and from the cultural conveniences we’d known our whole lives. Our Peace Corps assignment was “to work with a host-country counterpart in community development.” We had little understanding of what this meant other than “to help the people help themselves,” which is an admirable mission but didn’t provide a hint of direction when we were on the ground.

The following account of our time in Ecuador will tell of all the ways Earle, myself, and the community discovered challenges together and worked to solve them. Those two years opened our eyes to the difficulties—both broad and specific—that the world faces. We also discovered, invented, and stumbled upon so many ways such problems can be solved when people work together. In the half-century since Earle and I first arrived in Ecuador, the Peace Corps has perfected the logistics of putting willing volunteers in the places that need them, but the truth is that there are always new problems to discover, and it is only by confronting them that we can hope to solve them for further generations.

The Barrios of Manta was the first published memoir of the Peace Corps by returned volunteers, but it would not be the last. When it was written, it was our attempt at explaining a new idea to Americans. Today, the Peace Corps has solidified its place in the history of our country. The Peace Corps experience had an incalculable influence on myself and Earle, as it has on the more than 200,000 who have served since.

President Barack Obama, in his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009, reflected ideas that inspired the first Peace Corps: “As the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself, and America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.” It was just fifty years ago that President John F. Kennedy implored us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The Peace Corps is still a viable and robust institution. It has weathered ten presidential administrations and multitudes of world issues, and has remained open to a new generation of volunteers. Like those who have gone on before them, Peace Corps Volunteers continue to enhance America’s role in revealing our common humanity and ushering in a new era of peace.

Sometimes I think, “What would my life be like if we had not joined the Peace Corps?” The answer, of course, is embedded in one of those conjectures that can never really be known. But I do know that the Peace Corps experience completely re-set the course of our lives from the day we volunteered. This book, re-published on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, is the story of what this has meant to each of us personally and as a family, and of the ever-widening ripple effect on the world around us.

  • Published by: Untreed Reads


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