Word & Image 

Elmerangel “Elmer” Francisco Calata, 29, Peace Corps Volunteer.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

"Dude, I have been so blessed to know all of the people that I have known here. I’m painting a friend’s house right now just to be able to get the money to get back to Paraguay. I was born in the Philippines, outside of Manila. I moved to Richmond when I was 16. It was 1998. When I moved I didn’t know how to speak English.

"When I was in the Philippines, you didn’t go anywhere. You live in your community, and that’s what you know. But my life is a movie now. I could never have imagined that I’d live in America, in Richmond, or move to Paraguay for almost three years. Or that I’d go back.

"I went to VCU. I had actually quit school for a while and started work [at] Sticky Rice. I was playing with the idea of starting a Filipino restaurant when this guy came in and sat in front of me. First it was a casual conversation. He said he worked for VCU and that if I was interested in going back to school, there was this new program in urban planning and international relations. I said, why not. Dude!

"A friend of mine was doing Peace Corps Fiji, and that kind of channeled into me thinking that I could do this. But I needed to be somewhere that I could relate to. I knew that I was more valuable in a Third World country, like my country.

"The first time I landed in Paraguay for the Peace Corps I was like, “Hell yes.” It was raw. The country is just raw. There are dirt roads everywhere. In the first community I worked in — it was about an hour bus ride on a completely dirt road. It was beautiful, man, like farms everywhere. And there’s only like three buses that go into town every day, and if it rains they don’t even travel. The whole town stops.

"After that I got posted in the north. I spent four months there. I thought I did really well. That second community … that’s when it hits you like, this is the Peace Corps experience. You have a lot of down time. You get to know about yourself. You live by yourself in a small little brick house. I had water. I had a shower. I didn’t have that in the Philippines. We used a pail and a bucket. They use that in Paraguay, too, in some of the more rural areas. I didn’t get to stay.

"A conflict started with the EPP or Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo, the Marxist guerilla movement. The people in the town wanted us to stay, but it was crazy because the word came from the American embassy, and they’re like “You gotta get out.”

"It can be very difficult to work with government in Paraguay. But for us, being Americans, it’s hard to get in because there’s a bad connotation being an American. They think we want their resources. Or they just think we’re spies.

"I’m done with the first 27 months. Before you leave the Peace Corps, there’s a battle. Should I leave? Should I not? Should I go back? What do I do, you know? I felt like I needed to stay. I’m flying back tomorrow, and there’s this new project.

"I tell you, man, after two-and-a-half years that I was in the Peace Corps, I felt for the first time that this was what I came here to do.

"I’ve got another 10 months. I’m there to September 2012. I know I’m always going to be back in Richmond. But I don’t know what the next step is. I’m cool with that. You just gotta roll with the everyday living, you know?"

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