A few times a year, groups of students from the United States visit Chulucanas for weeklong service trips. Usually, on their first night in Chulucanas my community members and I reflect with them on their initial impressions of the city. We are always eager to hear the students’ observations—after living here for almost 7 months, my community members and I agree that we have become desensitized to the oddities that initially surprised us. For this reason, we love welcoming visitors; through their eyes, it seems like we, too, can see Chulucanas again for the very first time.
When we did this reflection with one of the more recent trips, many of the students’ observations seemed trivial. “I wasn’t expecting all the mototaxis,” one said. Another commented on the stray dogs. One of the boys, in response to seeing humbler homes, said, “It’s really good that we’re here, these people really need us.”
My immediate response to this student’s observation was to dispute him. “They don’t ‘need’ us!” I wanted to shout. I thought of my Peruvian host mother, Marleny. Marleny is a sassy and generous woman who rarely verbalizes the abundant love she has for her family but who shows it in everything she does. Her love is stewed into the lomo saltado and sudado she slaves over every day in the kitchen. Her love is carved into her face; after years of caring for her own children and now her grandchildren, her eyes are edged with laugh lines, frown lines, and everything in between. And despite her humble home and her lack of access to steady healthcare, it seemed to me that claiming someone like Marleny “needed” any amount of charity was the epitome of western hubris.
In a culture where we need extra-curricular activities to put on college applications and desire proof of being “socially conscious” on our resumes, service has become an entity outside the confines of regular human interaction. It has become something that the privileged must bestow upon the less-privileged. It’s something extra. Something reserved for those who have time or skills to donate, or those who are extra selfless or extragenerous. And with this definition comes the tendency to want to see the fruits of our labors. We want to quantify exactly how much we are helping people, or how much change we have affected. Perhaps because we want to feel “needed.” Or perhaps because we just want proof that this extra effort we’re putting in is worth it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe these views of service lessen the good that is done as a result of it. But I do believe that Chulucanas has changed my definition of what it means to serve. In Peru, I don’t see service as a duty or a necessity. I do not believe that my presence or influence is “needed” by people in Chulucanas. I know that if I were not here, life would continue the way it always has.
With that in mind, I have found that the most profound service I can offer is the service that I believe every human is indebted to pay to the other. My service in Chulucanas is the flicker of recognition in my students’ eyes when they finally understand a difficult concept. It’s greeting the same handful of people every morning on the walk to work, entering into each other’s spheres for mere moments and reminding each other that if one of us were to disappear, someone would notice. It’s Peruvian friends’ laughter when I mispronounce or misuse words in Spanish, and it’s my own ability to laugh along with them. It’s walking back from class on Friday afternoons with a handful of my students who live close by, talking about everything from our plans for the weekend to our favorite books to politics.
This kind of service, the sharing pieces of myself with those around me, doesn’t have any tangible or measurable results. And yet, I feel it ripping me open, allowing me to feel in ways that I hadn’t known existed previously. It is the service of laughing. It is the service of learning. It is the service of sharing. It is the service of listening. It is the service of acceptance. It is the service of living.
Taylor De La Pena
Chulucanas, Peru 2016