“What do you want to do when you grow up?”
As a fifth grader I remember this question always made me feel so much dissatisfaction and guilt because I never knew what to say.
I’d make a halfhearted choice based on what I knew was available, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher perhaps?
Growing up in a low-income community in Los Angeles I had never been exposed to the grand diversity that was the labor market. Hence, I based my answers on what I thought my teachers wanted to hear and not on what felt right. None of those options ever felt right.
I knew it was an important question because the anxiety that would follow my shaky answers never seemed to satisfy that big looming question.
So I recoiled from this assignment and became a day dreamer.
I’d walk home from school with my arms stretched out like a bird or a plane pretending I was high above the ground and all the mounds of dirt and weeds I was looking at were far away landscapes, deserts and jungles seen from above. I was the clouds. I was the sky.
This seemed more correct to me than any answer I had ever given to my 5th grade teacher. I wanted to be the sky. But this wasn’t a job, it was a feeling. So I remained “us in the air” so to speak. My head in the clouds.
One fateful day in 6th grade I would finally be grounded. I got ill and I stayed home from school only to watch TV all day, yesssss.
It was then that I saw one, JUST one, commercial for the Peace Corps. It spoke of helping others, seeing new places, it challenged me to do something in the name of peace and illuminated to me that “Life was waiting”.
It stirred something inside of me that I hadn’t known was there to be stirred!
I immediately asked my favorite teacher at school about the Peace Corps but sadly they had no idea what it was either. This was in the age before Google, before Wikipedia and even before my family owned a computer, so there was no way to research this amazing thing I had seen. I was forced to forget all about the Peace Corps. I was just a child – I had a lot of growing up to do still, and a long road of hardships and pain before I would rediscover the Peace Corps.
But something had been planted deep within me. My sky now became an airplane window that would take me to my life that was waiting.
* * *
It would take years and a lot of hardship to see this seed grow into my passions and dreams.
Reaching the Peace Corps was no easy task. It took a great deal of commitment and energy to get there. I was lost for awhile I had even forgotten that this organization had even existed. Inspiration first came to me in the form of injustice, injustice that would one day transform into honor.
My parents saw the sad realities of a civil war living in a small Guatemalan village during the 70’s. Eventually, after the deaths of my two siblings they left behind their families, land, and careers to live in Los Angeles; in a place where they felt death would no longer follow them.
My father had been the first child in his family to win a scholarship to go to school, he served in the army, he was a policeman, and an aspiring artist. All that was torn away from him once in America, the shadows of his lost potential haunted his every move, drained him of his energy and made him stare off into the horizon from our apartment window for hours.
He was my best friend and even if I didn’t know it at the time, it deeply hurt me to see him this way towards the end of his life.
My father was murdered by his co-worker on August 7th 1997, the man who killed him was sentenced to one year of house arrest. Our public defender stated that: “This is the way it goes. The court is not willing to spend tax payer money on the case of an immigrant.”
My father, my best friend, the person who taught me how to play dominoes, listened to me play the violin (badly) for hours, loved me, called me “nan-chi”, hugged me until I fell asleep, defended me, told me that a good heart was the only thing worth having, and gave up his life so that I may grow up in this country was now being reduced to just an immigrant.
The cycle of recovery from this was slow and painful. There were days full rage, my life was saturated by people and institutions that I no longer trusted. On most days I just felt hollow.
The greatest epiphany of my life came to me as a senior in high school when I realized that my life had to be bigger and grander than this pain. I had to fight for my dreams – to not do so would have been a dishonor to everything my parents had done. I had to actively pursue my dreams – for myself, for my father, and for everyone who had not had the chance to chase their own dreams.
I made a choice: I was going to go to college. From that moment on, everything that I did felt right. It was all in honor of my mother, in honor of my father.
* * *
“When you pursue your personal legend the universe will conspire with you to make it happen”
It was at California State University of Los Angeles that I discovered what the Peace Corps was, and for the first time in my life I gained focus. I knew that it was what I was meant to do with my life, and once I realized that all the pieces just began to fall into place.
Having The Peace Corps as my goal inspired me to excel in school, I was dean-listed, I became an MUN delegate and was admitted into Pi Sigma Alpha, the National Political Science Honor Society.
One step, upon completion, led to the next and before I knew it I was interviewing with my Peace Corps recruiter.
After three interviews, and a physical examination, my application was complete, and the waiting game started.
At one point I remember dreaming about brown boxes almost every night. You know you have been invited to serve in the Peace Corps by receiving a package in the mail with your letter and loads of information about the organization and the country you will be serving in.
I’d rush home everyday wanting to check the mail, my roommate/best friend was accustomed to letting me know our mail update every night as soon as I came through the door, she was awesome.
One day I arrived home and I saw my best friends standing in the living room waiting for me. They had set up a barbecue outside and they all made toasts about how much they loved me and finally handed me my package.
That package held the next three years of my life within it, my first real life goal achieved, the honor I had fought so hard for, it held my invitation to serve in a beautiful country called the Republic of Moldova in Eastern Europe.
The joy filled my eyes with tears, that life that I had been waiting for was about to begin.
My departure felt like a whirlwind of preparation, good-byes, avoiding tears, and packing!
I left on an early Monday morning off to Philadelphia for orientation and then onward to Moldova for my 3 month in country training.
As I sat in the window seat of the airplane, watching Los Angeles fade away, I knew I was flying towards a life that I could not anticipate, I had no idea what any of this was going to be like, I was walking into the unknown, or rather, I was flying, finally, arms outstretched - I was the clouds. I was the sky.
This is the first in a series of articles by Marlene Nancy Lopez about her experiences with The Peace Corps. Read part 2 here: Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer Breaking Down Barriers.