Old Times. Old Friends. New Surprises!
By Patricia (Patt) Behler 1962-64

Surprises are always exciting but really exciting surprises come rarely! One happened to me when  I was visiting once again in Arequipa Peru where I worked as a community  development worker  from 1962-64.

I saw someone whom I had never expected to see again and what I found out about her life since we had been friends in 1963 amazed and thrilled me. Her name was Gilma Concha when we knew each other in Alto Selva Alegre. She was a university student and we both had an interest in drawing and painting . We would go on sketching trips out to the chakra fields to draw and paint  on our days off.  An old black and white photo I still have of her reminds me that I remember her as a shy, quiet person.

Not now! A mutual friend who also lived nearby in the earlier days said to me this summer while I was visiting in Arequipa, Peru,  “Senorita Patricia, Gilma Concha is back in town and would like to see you.”  “Fine”, I said. So it was arranged.

(above, l to r) Felix, Gilma's partner, Patt Behler, and Gilma Concha Manrique. (photo from author)

Of course we had both aged in the forty four years since we had last seem each other…she is a sophisticated woman by now and I… well, let’s just say my hair has turned a nice shade of “silver”! After our affectionate greeting, the first words out of her mouth were “Senorita Patricia, it is because of you that I am an artist!”

And then the story unfolded. Her parents had discouraged her from studying art, which she soon realized was her strongest wish. Instead she continued with her ordinary studies. Finally, however, she boldly decided to attend classes at the Bellas Artes Instituto in Arequipa where she studied drawing and painting.

Next came marriage, a move to Lima, the birth of their children and eventually, studies at the Fine Arts University in Lima. Her work was beginning to be recognized in professional circles, She had multiple exhibits in Peru as well as a trip to be present for her one person show in Switzerland. Newspaper clippings of her accomplishments are numerous in her  file.

She also taught at the Colegio Johannes Gutenberg in Lima and participated in a project of the Colegio, as a faculty member, collaborating with  other professionals from the Seminario de Historia Rural Andina-UUMSM and the Asociacion Cultural Johannes Gutenberg to produce a study with the students in which they related stories from the Andean villages from which their families had come. Almost all of these tales had existed only in the oral tradition until they were related and then written down in a handsome booklet. In addition, the stories were illustrated by original paintings by the students under the direction of Gilma Concha. Looking at a copy of  the booklet which she provided for me gives me such pride in her part in guiding her students’ work.

Equally accomplished are her own oil paintings, showing indigenous life in Peru through a sympathetic eye, presented in a modern style. Her canvases portray ordinary experiences among the people of the altiplano in an extraordinary way.

She is currently working on a series of large oils depicting the women of Arequipa who played a major part in an historical revolutionary movement in which they daringly carried food baskets to the resisters and dug up paving stones in the streets to delay attackers. Her work will  be part of a major exhibit featuring the work of professional women artists at the University of San Augustin early in 2008.

(above) While visiting Arequipa, Peru, Patt met with four Arequipa PCVs who are pictured (l to r) Ben Coleman, Brian McHugh, Rachel Farrell and Emily Hanks.

So why am I so excited about having met Gilma again and seen what she has accomplished? Well, here  is really the end of my story. When I went to Peru as a PCV in  the sixties, I had expected to be an art teacher in an elementary school. I had dreams of working side by side with a Peruvian art teacher, demonstrating what I considered to be important about creative art experiences for young students as well as learning from the teachers there in Arequipa.  During training stateside we had been led to believe that we could expect to be paired with counterparts in our professions or  interests. Instead we were not allowed to do so by the then governmental authorities. We worked at the kinds of jobs we could create in the barriadas where we lived. In  small ways, I was able to teach some informal art classes in spots outside of the formal school environment. I went on to be involved with other kinds of projects during my two year stay but I felt sad that I had not be able to accomplish something that I deemed  important.

On the plane, coming back home again this last August, an answer finally came to me! What I had not been able to accomplish myself had been carried out by Gilma, and as she said, I had a part in its happening. She taught her students in  the way I would have taught them if I had had the opportunity. It was much better that she do it, of course, but I acknowledged to myself that perhaps
I had influenced Gilma to carry out by herself  the mission I had hoped for. It just took me 44 years to discover it!

Peace Corps work is strange that way. Much of the time one wonders what is happening. Is there anything that will really result besides making friends in a host country and  learning more about another culture different from one’s own? Well, I know that both of those results can be very important but, now, I’m beginning to think that the influence of Peace Corps work can go on and on and  have a  much stronger effect than I once imagined and dreamed of.

Getting off of the plane, coming back to Jefferson City, Missouri, I walked a little taller and a bit more proud than before going on  my trip back to visit old friends from earlier Peace Corps times. I have a feeling that the same result could be true for many of you who are reading this article too!