They Think You Have No Family

Last Update: 5/26/2014 10:44 AM

By Marlow Schindler

As a Community Health Volunteer Britany Schneider found herself at the intersection of health and agriculture.  Although her community had a legitimate need, the local health clinic was not able to accommodate her.  She found the best way to get an audience with the farmers in her community was to work alongside them in the fields.  By showing she was no stranger to hard work, she earned respect for her secondary projects like building a garden at the school or starting a tree-planting campaign.

Brit and Host Family

It was doing a tree planting project that Britany’s resolve in tiny Santa Clara, Peru (2010-2012) was shaken.  One day, while walking down the road, a young man of about 18 years old stopped her to ask questions about her project.  He had a friend with him, and they giggled at her answers.  Thinking they were just nervous, Britany ignored their laughter and answered the questions about nutrition seriously.  When she went to take her leave, the boy extended his hand as if to offer a handshake, but when Britany took his hand he pulled her in for a kiss.  Britany pushed the young man back, but by the time she had regained her composure he and his friend were laughing even harder about having “tricked her,” as they ran off without looking back.

Britany found a local champion of her work in her host father, Jose Guerrero.  Jose was a Juez de Paz, or Judge of Peace.  He played an important role in the community, adjudicating civil matters, settling questions of land ownership, and coordinating with the local “police” who filled the void in the rural area where no official police ventured.  Britany was hesitant to ask more from him since he already wore so many hats in the community.  Jose worked diligently for the community and for his wife, Selene, and two young sons, Fernando and Eduardo.

Britany felt humiliated, angry, and self-conscious.  When she got home she told Selene what had happened.  Hours later when Jose returned home, Selene relayed the story to her husband.  Britany was surprised when Jose put his leather jacket back on and told her they were going out.  Britany had been warned repeatedly against going out at night, but she trusted Jose, and knew he wouldn’t ask her to do anything that would compromise her reputation.  Because she had wished to avoid the gossip that comes with a single woman out after dark, Britany had never before seen Santa Clara at night.  The bodegas she knew as stores by daylight were transformed at night into video parlors and bars for men.  Jose instructed Britany not to make a fuss, but if she saw the young man at one of the bodegas, she should just nod.  After four or five bodegas, the young men were still nowhere to be found. Britany was disappointed.  Jose was disappointed.  But there was nothing to do but go home. 

It wasn’t until four or five months later that Britany ran into the young man on the porch of her family’s house – waiting with his father to meet with Jose about a civil dispute.  Britany slipped past, and following Jose’s original instructions, she did not make a scene, but pointed out the culprit to her host dad.  Jose acknowledged that he saw the boy, and asked her to go to her room until he called her name.  An hour later Jose called Britany into the room. 

Jose recounted Britany’s story to the young man and asked him if what she’d said was true.  The boy was obviously intimidated by the line of questioning from a respected authority figure.  At first he denied everything, but when Jose asked if the kid was calling his daughter a liar, he changed his story.  Jose demanded an apology, and got it.  He dismissed Britany and called in the boy’s father for further chastising. 

Britany was relieved to have gotten some closure.  Jose wasn’t like the other men in her community.  He was respectful with women, and not just Selene and Britany, but consistently with all women. Britany was satisfied that he took the time to let this young man know his behavior was inappropriate as a joke or otherwise.  Later that evening Jose called Britany in again.  He informed her that with the boy’s father he had agreed that a fitting punishment was a day of community service – cleaning the schoolhouse for eight hours: weeding, sweeping, and scrubbing, i.e. women’s work.

Dancing with Host Dad on Brit's Birthday

What Jose said next still brings raw emotion to Britany’s voice to recount, “‘Britany, do you know why this happened?’ I thought probably because of machismo, but I told him I didn’t know.  ‘This happened because people think you are here alone.  They think you have no family, but you are part of this family.  Even after you leave you will be part of the family.’  I had to not cry because that was culturally inappropriate, but it was one of the most heartwarming thing anyone had ever said to me.”

Jose and Selene had welcomed Britany wholeheartedly into their family, wanting to show their sons that there was a bigger world than the community that they’d been born into.  But Jose was already setting a great example of a different type of behavior for his sons.

Britany has continued on the path she started in Peru, recently moving to Sacramento for a farming apprenticeship.  She still talks to Selene and Jose monthly.  Most recently she called to wish Selene a happy birthday and wishes she were there to dance and eat cake with her family.

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