If you had asked Luis Santana Garcia ’21MA if he wanted to join the Peace Corps a few years ago, the idea wouldn’t have even crossed his mind — until a conversation with a faculty member in UCF’s Department of History.
“One day, I just happened to walk in and talk to Dr. [Richard] Crepeau about Ethiopia,” he says. “He mentioned that he went in the Peace Corps to Ethiopia. He explained to me what he did and that put it onto my radar. I was like, ‘Oh, this actually might be something that I should consider seriously.’”
Fast-forward to today, and Santana Garcia is currently lined up for his second service opportunity with the volunteer program that seeks to promote world peace and friendship through cross-cultural exchange. As a graduate of UCF’s history master’s program, Santana Garcia’s first service opportunity in Malawi tied into his research on East African history. It also granted him the opportunity to share his own culture as a Mexican American with an entirely new community.
What inspired you to join the Peace Corps?
In 2017, I was a member of the STARTALK program at UCF. One of the instructors, Anna Kiryakova, mentioned that they were they were having a World Festival (of Youth and Students) in Russia and that I should attend, so I did. I met people from all over the world: Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. Going through that process, something in my mind clicked and it was an understanding of the Peace Corps’ goal of facilitating cross-cultural exchange; You give something back and you get something in return, culturally. I wanted to help facilitate that and bring understanding of other cultures back with me.
What did your time with the Peace Corps entail?
When you apply [for the Peace Corps], you apply for a specific branch. In my country, Malawi, there was agriculture, health and education, [which I selected] and had a specific job as secondary school English and literature teacher. This was my day job, but you’re on the job 24/7. Some projects are required depending on the country and sector, such as malaria prevention, HIV prevention and projects relating to empowering female students. For my project, I helped them build and maintain a library and worked with malaria prevention, as well. There’s a lot you can do.
What did you learn about Malawi and/or East African culture during your time in the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps expects volunteers to integrate into their communities, and that is what you are doing from day one of service. There were things that you had to learn, such as never going into the small woods near a village as it is a cemetery. Only the Gule Wamkulu, costumed members of a secret society, were allowed in there. They wore colorful clothing and masks to hide their identity. The name also refers to their religious dances, quite literally meaning big dance, that were performed at funerals, big events and changing seasons. That was one of the biggest things I learned during my time in Malawi, and our group saw them dance on several occasions, including the volunteer swear-in ceremony. When I first saw them and learned more about them, it reminded me of Day of the Dead and the celebration of death.
Malawians love football (soccer) and there was a local field where we got to see a few matches being held. The whole village came out to see the games. [The culture in Malawi] was very family oriented, so I tried my best to fulfill my role in [my host] family when it came to chores. They call Malawi “the warm heart of Africa,” and it lived up to that name during my stay.
How did your own cultural identity affect your experience in Malawi?
You have to learn how to integrate into the community because the only way you’re going to get things done is by being seen as one of them. But you’re never going to be one of them, you’re always going to be different. You’re trying to integrate into a community that holds Americans to this almost mythical standard. They don’t know what a Hispanic American is, nor do they know what a Mexican American is. It then becomes your responsibility to represent that community, facilitate that cross-cultural exchange, and show that Americans are incredibly diverse. You kind of teach them this is what it means to be, for me specifically, Mexican American. I would show them pictures of my family and explain to them where they’re from, what they did, and what they meant to me. Or I’d show them little things, like calaveras, or sugar skulls. And that kind of helped me a cope a little bit, just having a little bit of a home with me.
Tell us about your research.
My research for my graduate degree at UCF was about East African history. Specifically, the Ogaden Conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia and how the global influences from the European superpowers during the late 1800s to early 1900s — and then later [between the] United States and the Soviet Union — shaped and [contributed to] an inevitable conflict with each other, and shaped the outcome. Even today, they’re still in conflict internally.
How did your research connect with your time in the Peace Corps?
When I was in the capital (of Malawi), I would talk to some of the people that were in the in the Peace Corps about the Cold War and things like that. I got a little bit of a different understanding of how to view the Cold War from people that were affected by it most. In essence, [I realized] how often we as Americans view history by looking at it from an American or Western perspective, and that I should incorporate other perspectives in my research. My service also helped in removing me from my usual daily schedule and habits, which helped me focus on my research.
What surprised you the most about your time with the Peace Corps?
I never really expected that I could actually do something like this. When I was in the first week, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this. What am I thinking? I came to a country on the other side of the world that I’ve never had an experience with.” I was freaking out for the longest time. My family was having a family reunion, and I couldn’t go because they couldn’t move the date, but my mom just happened to be on the phone with me when all my relatives were there. And it pushed me a little bit to know they were proud of what I was doing. And I’m glad I did, because within two or three weeks, it was like second nature.
What’s next for you?
The Peace Corps sent me an offer to teach at a university in Ukraine, but because of COVID [my start date is on hold and] I’m just waiting for that. I’m really excited to go not only further my own career, but also to experience that and give back to my own country and the Ukraine. I talked with some people who were in the university program, and a lot of them also help with projects with the embassy, which is what I really want to do. I want to work with the consulate in a foreign service in some degree.