Old Times. Old Friends. New Surprises!
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!”
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
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!