I am back in Latin America with my family. It is a place I love. It is a place of so many formative experiences stretching back several decades.
It was in Latin America that I learned what it meant to be the “other.”
As an eight year old, I was one of two white kids in a sea of brown faces in a third grade class in El Salvador. It was slightly terrifying.
I remember on my second day of class some local boys trying to convince the teacher that ‘el blanquito’ (‘little white boy’) was to blame for a dust-up in the sand box.
Then along came Jaime. He put his arm around my shoulder and diffused the situation with a smile. That memory makes me want to never miss an opportunity to be an “ally.”
It was in Latin America I first experienced the meaning of “first world problems.”
In my early 20s, I volunteered in an orphanage in Ensenada, Mexico. One day I drove two co-workers home to their village.
I will never forget the sea of cardboard houses stretching as far as the eye could see. It is a scene I now see repeated in many cities in the U.S.
Those memories help me stay grateful for what I have rather than covetous of what I do not and remind me to stay humble in serving others with less.
It was in Latin America that I first learned the power of embracing diverse worldviews to achieve better outcomes.
Just after college, I worked on a health education project in a small mountain village in Costa Rica. My friend Juan Carlos was the only individual in the village with a university degree.
I remember one night saying to him “you are crazy to throw away your education — what are you doing staying here?”
Having been raised in an ethos of achievement over all, his choice to stay with family rather than pursue his best career option made no sense…at least at first.
Over time, I came to love the warmth of his family and the quality of their time together. His views blended into my own to create a more powerful vision for what family could be.
This trip to Panama is my fourteenth to Latin America, and fifth with my family. As a family, we have traveled to Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Turks and Caicos.
It is watching my kids’ experiences in Latin America these last years that are the most formative of all.
They are young. And, seeing their reactions to new landscapes, new languages, and new ways of looking at the world helps me to see it all again with new eyes.