Meet Billy Lopez of Antigua, Guatemala. He’s 22 years-old and on his first trip outside of Guatemala to Seattle. But unlike many young people his age, his first excursion out of his home country is not part of a family vacation or to study abroad. Billy has taken a year off from his university studies to come work with Global Visionaries here in Seattle. If you walk into our office, you could easily overlook him among the many interns and volunteers bustling about. From his friendly smile and unassuming demeanor, you may not guess that Billy is actually a past participant in our Guatemala Youth Leadership program and will be with us for the next four months assisting with our U.S. youth programs and development efforts. I had the chance to meet Billy and find out more about him and his experience with Global Visionaries.
How did you find out about and become involved with GV?
I found out about GV as a senior in high school. GV’s Guatemala Country Directors, Aurelio Hernandez and Mario Flores came to one of my classes and did a presentation about GV. At the time, I was just a regular young guy who wanted to have fun and be with his friends. I had no interest in being a “global citizen.” My friends were all very interested because there was a pretty American girl (a gap year volunteer) involved, but I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t put my name down when the sign-up sheet came around. Two days later, Aurelio and Mario came back to our class and confirmed with those who had signed-up. I was shocked to hear my name being called out, but understood what happened when my friends started laughing. In the end, I decided to go along with it.
What was it like?
On my first day, I was shy because there were a lot of gringos (I was the only Guatemalan) and my English wasn’t very good because it was boring to learn when I was in school. I eventually opened up and was motivated to improve my English. Although I originally became involved with GV in the Spring of 2008 to fulfill a service project requirement in order to graduate, I decided to continue on into the Summer as well. Eventually, I took a part-time job with GV, where I was leading groups. This was very different from when I was a participant. Also, the group of friends that had originally joined up with me had gone on to do different things. I decided to take it to the next step by applying for a position with Earthcorps that would have brought me to the U.S. Although I was accepted into the Earthcorps program, I was unable to obtain a visa from the U.S. embassy following my interview on account of my youth and inexperience. This was a strong disappointment and a setback that caused me to have second thoughts about coming to the U.S. Then, five months ago, I was offered the opportunity to come work for GV at our Seattle office and this time, I got the visa! I had to take a year leave from university to accept the position and am disappointed that I won’t be graduating with my friends, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I wasn’t going to pass up.
What are your first impressions of the U.S.?
Um…they’re not so great. The first thing I noticed was the system of oppression that is at work in the U.S. For example, the large numbers of Blacks and Latinos driving buses, working in restaurants as servers or cooks, but I didn’t see any Black pilots, for example. Also, people are always on their cell phones or plugged into their iPods. They walk around in their own personal four walls and are unapproachable. When they see you, it’s like they don’t actually see you. When I came across other Latinos at the airport in Houston, they spoke to me in English! When I arrived in the U.S., I needed to be all dressed-up in a suit and tie because I knew the immigration officers would look at me from head to toe and judge me. Also, people don’t really walk on the streets here (except maybe downtown) like they do in Guatemala. And they don’t say hi.
Did you notice anything positive?
Absolutely. The diversity and especially the number of Latinos. Also, I was concerned about seeing only buildings and lots of concrete, but Seattle actually has a lot of trees and green space. Finally, I was worried that the GV office might be quiet and impersonal, but instead, I found it to be pretty lively and have many examples of people working together.
How has your involvement with GV affected your perspective and understanding of the world?
If I hadn’t been a part of GV, I probably wouldn’t have made all of the observations that I did at the Houston airport. Also, you know, in Guatemala, there is a physical divide between the rich and poor in the form of zones inside cities. In the rich zones, you have access to supermarkets, banks and public services, but not in the poor zones. The rich zones have regular and dependable garbage disposal services whereas the poor zones will house the city dump. The wealthy do not see or understand how their lifestyles affect the rest of society. They believe that education is truly free in Guatemala, but they don’t understand that some children still cannot afford to go to school because they are unable to pay for their uniforms or school supplies, so they drop out. Through GV, I’ve gained the ability to perceive and understand the implications of this divide, but also recognize that I’m still learning.
How does your experience affect how you make decisions in life?
One example is consumerism and its role in how I live my life. For example, I understand that I am privileged to have choice. So before I buy something, I always ask myself these questions: (1) do I really need it? (2) is there a better way for me to spend this money? (3) what are the social and environmental impacts of my consumption decisions? (4) what effect will my spending decisions have on the lives of others? Basically, I’ve learned to take a conscious step back to really think about what I’m doing before I buy something.
What else are you looking forward to seeing or doing while you’re here?
I’m looking forward to observing the “meeting of cultures” of the diverse populations here and their experiences of being in America. Meaning, I’d like to learn what it’s like to be from an outside culture, but living in the U.S. and maybe meet another Guatemalan who has been here for a while. I also want to improve my English and grasp of U.S. culture. I want to go skiing maybe; I had never seen snow before I came to Seattle! Finally, I’d like to see many of the people I had met back in Guatemala while I’m here.
Did you have a chance to meet Billy while you were down in Guatemala? If not, would you like to? Either way, you’re welcome to stop by the office and say hello. He’s here most days and can also be found at various events over the next four months!