(W)rites of Passage and Geographical Biographies: Female Peace Corps Volunteers in Latin America (1961-1970)

Authors: Jorn Seemann*, Ball State University
Topics: History of Geography, Geographic Thought, Latin America
Keywords: Peace Corps, geographical biographies, geographical imagination, Latin America
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Virginia C, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

As a U.S. governmental program for development projects abroad, the Peace Corps has sent more than 230,000 volunteers to 141 countries since its creation in 1961. There is a substantial literature on institutional issues, political questions, and historical contexts. However, the engagement with individual stories told by the volunteers, particularly the cultural-geographic dimension of this voluntary service, is still an underexplored topic. How did volunteers involve themselves and interact with land, life, and culture? How did they imagine, perceive, and describe people and traditions in their host countries? How did this lived experience shape their ideas about different cultures and their own? How did race and gender have an impact on their work? For this study, I will focus on female Peace Corps returnees who served in Latin America during the first decade of the program, which was characterized by uncertainties and intercultural experiments. Drawing from personal materials in the form of diaries, postcards, photo collections and family newsletters from the Returned Peace Corps Collection at the JFK Library in Boston, this paper presents and discusses examples of geographical biographies of women volunteers who worked in Ecuador, Peru, Jamaica, Venezuela and Honduras in the 1960s. The title of this paper alludes to previous studies like Duncan and Gregory’s edited collection of texts on traveling, othering and the geographical imagination. I argue that these subjective individual accounts of cultural immersion, frustrations and sense of place and home can shed light on general conceptions of other cultures, people and places.

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