I grew up in Ohkay Owingeh, one of the Eight Northern Pueblos of Northern New Mexico. As a child, the thought of living in another country was only slightly more plausible than moving to Mars, but looking back it’s clear that my journey into international service started there, in the heart of Indian Country, and was shaped significantly by my connection with traditional Tewa culture and language.
When I finished college, I began contemplating how I might bring together my varied interests. The eureka moment came upon first seeing the Peace Corps website. I knew it was something unique.
The Peace Corps emphasized the necessity of learning the local language and culture and affirmed this with more than two months of intensive language and cultural training while living with a host family. Finances were another important factor. Though the Peace Corps is a volunteer service organization, it provided everything necessary for living and working abroad: travel, training, housing, health care and a living stipend which, though not an American salary, was plenty to live on. It was also important to know that after finishing 27 months of service, Peace Corps would provide career transition resources, a wealth of graduate school opportunities and transition funds (currently over $8,000) to help with resettling in the U.S.
The 27-month commitment was substantial, but this was an opportunity unlike any other to represent my country and my tribe, while working with people in another part of the world. A little less than a year later, I was in a plane bound for the land-locked country in Central Asia about to become my home: Mongolia.
Flying in, all I could see were waves of rolling green hills and plains stretching into the distance: the Steppe. In stark contrast to the view of the countryside from the plane, Ulaanbaatar, the capital, was full of activity, people, traffic, technology, and buildings old and new. It was striking to see the overlap of different eras of history and culture as semi-nomadic herders in traditional clothing conversed with businessmen in freshly pressed suits.
As I learned more about Mongolian cultural traditions from my host family and teachers, it was fascinating to explore connections with my own tribal culture. As with pueblo culture, the land and sky play central roles in the Mongolian worldview. The supreme deity in ancient Mongolian religion is the Eternal Blue Sky. I learned that it was also important to show due respect to significant hills, rivers and trees which all had spirits, demonstrated by walking around a rock cairn at the top of a hill and adding a stone or by tying a prayer flag to a special tree. I showed my Mongolian friends pictures of my uncles, pueblo jewelers, and their work with silver, turquoise, coral, and lapis; and we were surprised to see the same materials and many similar designs used in Mongolian jewelry.
One of my favorite exchanges was sharing music and dance. I played examples of the extraordinary traditional vocal music from several American Indian tribes. In return, my Mongolian family and colleagues introduced me to the soul-piercing Mongolian Long Song and mesmerizing Khuumi (throat singing) that completely blew me away. During the summer festival of Naadam, before a wrestling match, Mongolian men perform an eagle dance, which any Tewa person would immediately recognize as a cousin to our own sacred dance.
It was a paradox to be so far away from home distance-wise, but, in terms of culture, to feel like I was visiting a neighbor or relative. In my work over the next two years, my cultural heritage, education, talents, and values converged and intersected more than I ever could have imagined.
My Peace Corps experience not only brought the idea of being a cultural ambassador full circle, but gave it a deeper meaning. There were certainly challenges and differences that had to be navigated, but the circles of who I considered to be part of my family, clan and tribe expanded exponentially.
I also learned that service, at its best, whether in one’s own community or on the other side of the world, starts with the simple act of giving and receiving hospitality and taking the time to learn from and love the people and culture around us.
Anthony Trujillo served as a Peace Corps volunteer with his wife in Mongolia from 2005-2007 and in Ukraine from 2007-2008. Since returning he has worked in Peace Corps recruitment and is currently the Regional Recruitment Supervisor for the Northeast Recruitment Office in New York City.