When I Was Elena is an extraordinary account of a young American woman’s sojourn in the guerrilla-infested mountains of Guatemala. At age twenty-two, Ellen Urbani left behind a classic Middle America upbringing, moving from a Southern sorority house into a scorpion-infested mud hut in order to live, work, and immerse herself in the culture of Guatemala’s poorest villagers. There she encountered seven local women—among them the wife of a political martyr, a twelve-year-old incest victim, and an escapee from house arrest—whose experiences unexpectedly illuminated her own. Shattering the concept of a typical memoir, the author’s personal story is interlaced, chapter-for-chapter, with tales told from the perspectives of these women she befriended. At once a coming-of-age adventure and a haunting history of the struggle to overcome oppression—both personal and cultural —this genre-breaching work is a paean to friendship and to the women of Central America.
When I Was Elena was named a BookSense Notable selection for 2006.
Praise for When I Was Elena
Read an Excerpt
Donate to Development Efforts in Guatemala
“The writing is gorgeous. While [Ellen’s] own story is riveting and bursting with observation, illustration, color, action, and life, the stories of the local women are extraordinary gifts of insight and caring that can make a difference in the way these women, and women like them, are seen. Perhaps understood. It is a book that one stays with, because [Ellen has] not backed away from the razor’s edge – which is the truth of [her] own experience.”
– Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author of The Color Purple
“When I Was Elena is a powerful and passionate memoir by a gutsy stranger in a troubled land. You will weep for Guatemala and be deeply moved by its women’s voices as the author struggles to understand and then to be loving and strong and helpful in an impossible situation. This is a very rich and disturbing tapestry that I hope will make you think about life outside of our privileged bailiwick where most of the planet’s citizens live.”
– John Nichols, bestselling author of The Milagro Beanfield War
“I loved this book. The writing is smart and gorgeous. The storytelling is equal parts sad, funny, insightful, and surprising. I was inspired by this book and also riveted. In it we get the story not only of Elena—the daring, hilarious, kind-hearted Peace Corps worker—but also that of the many women Elena came to know during her years in Guatemala. It’s a bold approach, to tell the story of women so different from her, but it works wonderfully and I was as deeply engaged with each of these women as I was with Elena herself. I found myself thinking about each of these women in the hours throughout the day when I wasn’t reading their stories, anxious to get back to the book to see what happened next. I highly recommend When I Was Elena.”
– Cheryl Strayed, international bestselling author of Wild
“This astonishing memoir made Guatemala, its paradoxes and thorny complexity, seem new to me. Ellen Urbani does something amazing here: She takes risks in her writing that are even more impressive than her actual journey. She possesses a magical empathy.”
– Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name
“Every now and then a work of nonfiction prose comes along that suggests the power of the written word over a documentary. This is the case with Ellen Urbani’s shattering, moving story of her two-and-a-half-year stint in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. Thinking of joining up? Taking a sociologically inspired tour to see how the so-called real people get by in a religion-obsessed, God forsaken country overrun with disease, poverty, corruption, brutality and crime, not to mention kidnapping young boys for guerilla war? First read this stunning, unforgettable book.”
– The Independent
“I had to wipe the tears from my eyes after finishing this wonderful story of war and peace, mostly ‘Elena’s’ peace, told beautifully by her and her female friends. I was moved by this account of a Peace Corps young woman ‘coming of age.’ Her presentation of the Guatemalans’ histories and beliefs was incredible. It’s a book I will share with all our customers.”
– Pam White, Skyland Books
“Ellen Urbani has found a way in her wonderful memoir to give voices to the voiceless woman of Guatemala…. These stories also testify to Urbani’s impact and involvement in Guatemala—she made friends there. By covering the same events as the chapters written in first-person, the chapters written from the other women’s perspectives succeed in inviting readers to consider how one’s actions are perceived by another culture, and provide a glimpse of the unusual, ephemeral and very memorable circumstances created when different worlds temporarily combine. It is a wonderful book full of hard truths honestly rendered. What a way to begin a literary life.”
– John Coyne, author of Long Ago and Far Away
“This is one of the finest books, if not the finest book, I’ve ever read.”
– Fritz Wolff, author of A Room For The Summer: Adventure, Misadventure, And Seduction In The Mines Of The Coeur D’Alene
“Women’s stories so need to be shared, particularly women’s hero stories, and that is what When I Was Elena is. We need authors who give us our wings; Ellen, as Elena, gives women the notion to take flight. She is a brave and gifted writer with a grand story to tell.”
– Susan Chernak McElroy, author of All My Relations
“Armed with her dog, fluency in Spanish and a well-grounded blend of will and pluck, Urbani, amidst the country’s crushing poverty and rampant hazards, finds an unexpected lode of humor that she mines to impressive effect and records events with an unflinching sense of the absurd. The country’s more menacing figures—lewd men, including a would-be rapist—are introduced without histrionics, as products of a culture viewed with clear-eyed anthropological interest. Intercut with the quietly powerful life stories of the native women she befriends and the tectonic shifts in perspective, she creates a rich mosaic of culture and character, and her animated voice reliably shines through.”
– Publishers Weekly
“When she was 22 years old, ‘fresh from college in the refined Deep South,’ the author— much to the consternation of her parents—headed off to Guatemala, where she soon discovered that her every preconception about the country was either woefully inadequate or flat-out wrong. It was her chance meeting with several women (including a fugitive from justice and an incest victim who had not yet reached her teenage years) that enabled Urbani to see what Guatemala was really all about. This memoir will have great appeal.”
Chapter 5 – Elena’s Story
It would be simple for me to allow this tale to digress and then degrade into a scathing denouncement belittling and chastising the Hispanic male. I admit my bias plainly, and if you have not noticed yet you will see soon, again and again, the tortured roots from which my proclivity springs. It is my hope that in being forthright my prejudiced statements may be judged on a balanced scale that takes into account the troubled experiences that birthed them…
Chapter 6 – Rosa’s Story
My life is a life that is full of good luck. When I said this to Elena, she agreed about this idea with me. My life is simple but not hard, as it could be, and has had many happy moments in it with more to come, I am sure. I have a very special husband. I have healthy children. I have an americana for a best friend. I have many blessings that others do not…
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Have you been back to Guatemala since you wrote the book?
Ellen: No, I haven’t yet been back. When I first got home from Guatemala, I had no desire to return. As my feelings softened with the passage of time, I found myself too broke and too busy to return — graduate school and the building of a business never allowed me much free time or money. Once I could have managed the trip fiscally, I had started having children, and Guatemala didn’t strike me as a place to take wee ones. Now that my children are older and other obstacles are removed, the country has gotten so dangerous for different reasons — drug and gang wars, primarily — that my husband balks at the idea; he’s sure I’d come back sans a head. So I’m still waiting … One of these days, we will all go. And it will make me happy.
Q: What would you say/do if one of your children wanted to join the Peace Corps?
Ellen: I hope they both want to do it! I’d love to do it again myself! Certainly, I experienced hardships and dangers during my service, but I have experienced hardships and dangers stateside, too. In the end tally, Guatemala gave to me so much more than she took; I am a different and certainly better person for what I learned — primarily about myself! — by joining the Peace Corps. I would wish such a glorious learning experience might be had by everyone, and certainly I wish it for my own children.
Q: Did you have any particularly rewarding experiences as an outcome of writing this book?
Ellen: The writing and publishing of When I Was Elena was an altogether positive experience: I met fascinating people and got to exchange amazing stories, I got to re-learn lessons from my own stories, and I had fun traveling around and discussing the book. But one particularly lovely experience stands out, and that was reconnecting with my 10th grade high school English teacher, whom I tracked down in order to thank for her influence on me and my decision to write. (This was before the revolution that is Facebook, when tracking someone down was more difficult than typing his/her name into a search engine. The search was a fascinating process in and of itself.) Bottom line: It felt so good to be able to return so many years later to give credit to someone who might otherwise never have understood the impact her presence and her teachings exerted on me. Our local newspaper editorialized the reunion, which you can read about here: Leesburg Today (pdf).
Q: Is your experience representative of most Peace Corps Volunteers’ experience?
Ellen: Absolutely not. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘universal’ Peace Corps experience — there are so many individual characteristics of people (volunteers as well as host-country nationals) and cities and regions and countries that even two friends in two adjacent communities are bound to have very different experiences. As such, I was always very careful not to paint my story or my book as anything more than my individual perspective on an episode in my private life. Had I been of a different age or gender, or even if I’d had a different hair color!, my stories would surely be exceedingly different. This interview in the Portland Tribune, which details a conversation between myself and two fellow returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Guatemala, makes that plenty clear: Peace Corps Throws a Party (pdf).
Contact Ellen, ask a question, and watch for your answer on this website!
Q: You lived in Guatemala at the tail end of a decades-long civil war, when there was continued guerrilla and army occupation of many areas. You were also there during three political coups in as many weeks. What was it like to leave a homeland of political stability and wake up the next morning to a world of civil unrest?
Ellen: Surreal, obviously. Given my comparatively cloistered upbringing, there was a significant disconnect between what I saw and what I felt. The civil and political unrest that permeated the country never settled into me so fully as it settled into the people who lived their whole lives within its shadow. Though I witnessed the coups, the disappearances, those things always felt so far outside my realm of conception that I suppose I maintained a cognitive, and an emotional, distance. The fears that stalked me were of a much more personal nature – a specific person rather than a political possibility. That said, in our fears, though of an uncommon nature, I found a commonality with the Guatemalans I befriended. We all longed for safety, for security. Our socio-political affiliation didn’t matter; whether a socialist, communist, or democrat, we all wanted to walk out our door in the morning and return home at night unharmed. Our fears were a terrific unifier and, oddly, created a firm foundation where we could live together in great empathy. We realized that despite our evident surface differences, at heart we wanted the same things, and by relying on each other, we had a better chance of achieving them.
Q: Although the Peace Corps is often lauded for its humanitarian mission, you can’t escape the fact that it is a branch of the U.S. government dedicated to the promotion of democracy and American ideals. Given the current backlash against U.S. foreign policy, are you prepared to be an ambassador for the concept of American intervention abroad?
Ellen: In truth, the Peace Corps is remarkably successful in maintaining an apolitical perspective, though I’d be a fool to deny there isn’t an American agenda attached to its mission. It promotes – among other things – self-sufficiency, independence, creative thinking, and a free-market economy; all cornerstones of the proverbial “American way.” This, and its relative appearance as a highly moneyed venture in the foreign countries where it serves, can leave it vulnerable to misinterpretation by the world’s poor. But the beautiful thing about the Peace Corps is that it focuses on building bridges to understanding. In opposition to diplomatic or military maneuvering, it values and promotes individual relationships with people – not just with countries or governments. The political jargon being tossed about so freely nowadays – Axis of Evil, Evildoers, Liberation, Revolution – you know who that doesn’t include? That doesn’t include Rosa, who isn’t worried about anything more complex than how to feed a family of eight with food enough for four. Or Lucinda, who has six children and a field to harvest without a husband, because he became a disappeared last night. Those are the people the Peace Corps exists to serve. So in answer to your question: Am I prepared to be an ambassador for that sort of ethical, forthright, people-centered American intervention abroad? You’re damn right I am.
Q: You hint at the lingering, damaging impact of U.S. military involvement on local villagers in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Having seen firsthand the effect on the lives and attitudes of the civilians this intervention was meant to benefit, what consequences do you foresee as the result of current, similar U.S. policies in other parts of the world?
Ellen: You can pick up a newspaper in any city in this country, on any given day, and read about the sad, but typical, turn in sentiments that those who have been “saved” experience when they start to perceive the liberator as equivalent to the oppressor. But in a letter I recently received from John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, he touched on a consequence of foreign military intervention that I think few people have fully realized. In reference to his own experience in Guatemala, he said: “In general, it’s probably a major crime for our imperial government, or country at large, to be sending its blond, blue-eyed do-gooders to our starving satrapies around the globe. What I learned in my brief adventure as a blond, blue-eyed representative of the United States was to never again visit a Latin American (or other Third World) country as anything other than a person actively protesting the United States’ economic, cultural, political, or environmental policies in that country and elsewhere.” His observation is a keen one, and aligns with my own perspective. I think one of the major, yet relatively undiscussed, impacts of current U.S. foreign policy is that it is endangering Americans abroad. One is no longer safe if recognized as an American in many parts of the world.
Q: Why do you think the Guatemalan culture hasn’t significantly changed or modernized despite ongoing international aid?
Ellen: Quite possibly because there was nothing wrong with the culture that needed changing in the first place. Not that I don’t think there is great merit – and one could argue need – in eradicating certain preventable diseases, in establishing and maintaining hygienic living conditions, etc. But the international aid that is introduced in countries like Guatemala is often determined and delivered based more on the perceived needs of the giver rather than the receiver. For example: Do children learn better in enclosed concrete buildings than they do in open-air huts? My experience has been that the structure has little impact. But show most Americans a picture of poor children studying in a bamboo lean-to, and they will lament that the children need a schoolhouse. So an outsider intervenes, with a full heart and good intentions, and builds a schoolhouse out of imported materials that can be neither repaired nor replaced when the benefactor leaves, and the recipients are never again satisfied with the lean-to that had served their needs adequately before they were convinced otherwise. The real question, the hard introspective question, should be: Whom does this type of aid truly serve?
Q: You had to work hard to overcome many Guatemalans’ preconceptions of you, and Americans in general, based on images they’d been fed through television and movies. What is your perception of the way America represents itself to rest of world via pop culture and the media?
Ellen: The country I live in, and the one Guatemalans perceived me to have come from, are two dramatically different places. The Hollywood world of all sexy, all pretty, and all wealthy has never been a reality for me, yet it was a mien I could rarely escape from during my years abroad. Regular folk like myself are – at best – done a disservice by the glamorous images foisted upon poorly educated populaces; these people have no reference points allowing them to distinguish between the fantasy of film and the reality of life in the United States. What Americans consider to be escapist entertainment is considered by most Guatemalans to be a fact-based primer on life in America. That is our fault, for we have only rarely provided them with a more honest picture of ourselves. At worst, when held accountable to that distorted, typically sexualized image, it can result in real personal harm, especially to women, as detailed in When I Was Elena.
Q: If Guatemalans had preconceptions of you, surely you had some of them as well. What are the stereotypes and biases you most struggled to overcome, and how successful do you think you were in doing so?
Ellen: I knew very little about Guatemala before I arrived, aside from a few glimpsed images in magazines extolling the landscape and the quaint nature of indigenous life. But let’s be honest: A life of abject poverty isn’t quaint anywhere, and since 99% of the Guatemalan population – including the entire indigenous population – lives in poverty, that notion got dispensed with pretty quickly. Other things I never fully adjusted to. I still fail to understand why, beset by the same level of poverty, some people choose to live as neatly, as cleanly, as possible, while others allow themselves and their surroundings to deteriorate. I hated the machismo; the sense that in many men’s eyes I was nothing more than a sex object. And while the slower pace of life is something I struggled to embrace at first, but then did fully, the plodding pace of business and government left me consistently stymied. None of these things are entirely unique to Guatemala, however. Those characteristics that are unique to Guatemalans, the traditions and superstitions, the daily rituals, the cariño of the people – those are the things I loved.
Q: You left a life of some advantage in the United States to pursue a life of poverty in Guatemala. Yet, by Guatemalan standards, you were still considered privileged—poverty being a relative term. How do you think the definition of poverty differs most dramatically in these two countries?
Ellen: Even during the most daunting financial times in my life, I have never known what it is to be poor, so I can only address this question based on observations, not personal experiences. That said, in my career as a cancer counselor, I was in a position to provide social and medical services to patients whose circumstances – financial and otherwise – were quite dire. So I know that, minimal though it might be, there is a safety net of health and social services available to the poor in the United States to which Guatemalans have no chance of access. In that way, poverty in Guatemala is more terminal; it is an utterly inescapable thing. At the same time, it is universal; because virtually every Guatemala is as poor as his neighbor, there is great communion in their poverty. In the States, in contrast, a poor child is likely to share a schoolhouse with children from middle class families, making his poverty – and the opportunities from which it excludes him – a much more isolating experience.
Q: At a time of unprecedented poverty and hardship in the United States, one might wonder if we should be sending our personnel resources abroad. Why did you choose to focus on overseas work instead of committing yourself to intervening in your own country?
Ellen: In that way, my motives were entirely selfish. I wanted to learn a foreign language. I wanted a novel adventure, and knew there would be few other times in my life when I’d have the opportunity to step out of my typical life and take off for an unfamiliar place. And I felt – in the way only a naïve, presumptuous 22-year-old can – that I already knew my own country well enough and could learn more by moving abroad. On that count I was both right and wrong: I wouldn’t trade the lessons Guatemala taught me for anything, but there was, and still is, much to discover about my homeland.
Q: Though the Peace Corps is the vehicle that launched your adventure, you mention it infrequently, with only a few references to some frightening situations you landed in by virtue of your association. How has this book been received in the Peace Corps community?
Ellen: If anyone can appreciate this book, certainly Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can. They don’t have to agree with my impressions or share my experiences, but I trust they will appreciate my motives in writing about those years. How the Peace Corps as an organization, specifically as a governmental organization, will receive the book… I can only speculate. I would hope it is received as a truthful portrait of an institution that is at once both flawed in minor ways and fabulous in the important ones, as many goodwill institutions are. For you will find no greater advocate for Peace Corps service than I. I know of no more remarkable vehicle by which Americans can acquire a diplomatic understanding of the world, while at the same time recognizing that idealism alone cannot eliminate suffering. Despite the hardships to which it exposed me, I still count it as one of the smartest, most wonderful things I have ever done.
Q: Knowing the trials and adverse conditions you were exposed to, especially as a woman, why would you recommend volunteer service to others?
Ellen: To build character. To discover courage in oneself. To learn what one’s core strengths are and to become comfortable in one’s own company. To acquire a sense of self reliance and resilience and fortitude. And, finally, to expand the myopic brand of nationalism that staying too long in one place can subversively impose upon oneself.
Q: It’s almost a cliché that Peace Corps Volunteers return home and can’t stop writing about their experiences. What makes your perspective so unique as to justify the writing – and the reading – of this book?
Ellen: My primary goal in writing this book was not so much to toss my own voice into the literary fray, but to repay the trust and friendship extended to me by the women of Guatemala by speaking of, and for, them. These women are virtually silenced, by means of illiteracy and conditioning, and they live within a culture that is also largely unheard from. I originally made the same mistake I think many do, which is to minimize the value and the example of Guatemalan women. I failed to appreciate their strengths in person; I was still too immature at that time in my life. It wasn’t until I had some distance, some time, some age-won-wisdom, that I came to respect their quiet brand of fortitude. Setting their stories as a counterpoint to my own experiences seemed to be the way to throw their lives into greatest relief. What I am most proud of as a person, and then as an author, is my willingness to appreciate the plight of these women and endeavor to empathize with their perspectives. That is what makes When I Was Elena a wholly unique accomplishment.
Q: This book is intriguing in that it is authored by one person, yet comes across as if it is written by eight very different women. How in the world did you manage to capture those different voices—and what gives you the authority to do so?
Ellen: When I Was Elena is a literary endeavor, not an act of journalistic reporting. It is a personal, creative work, and as the craftsman of that work, I assumed authority for developing the narrative in a way that was most advantageous from a story-telling perspective. In the years-long process of deciding how to do that, long before I ever wrote a single word, it slowly dawned on me that speaking in the voices of those other women would be most compelling. Realizing I couldn’t switch back and forth between my voice and theirs without developing a sizable personality disorder, I got my own stories out of the way first. Then I embarked on what turned out to be a fascinating process of “becoming” those other women while I wrote. I felt like a medium; everything about them came alive for me again. I could hear their voices while I typed; I could feel the weathered skin on their hands and smell their hair. It turned into the return trip to Guatemala that I had not yet managed in person. By far, though, the most surprising, and rewarding, outcome of “becoming” them for the book is this: I finally, fully, appreciated the concealed strengths in them to which I had previously been blinded. It was a humbling, heartening endeavor.
Q: Many of these stories are so riveting, so dramatic, as to be virtually unbelievable. And though it is billed as nonfiction, you state in the Author’s Note “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction…” So what is true, and what isn’t?
Ellen: In my own stories, there’s some temporal distortion, with the order of events rearranged to accommodate the narrative flow. Also, in an effort to minimize the introduction of superfluous characters, I took the liberty of erasing some cohorts. As for the other women, there are obviously some fictionalized parts, as I was forced to fill in details I wasn’t privy to in order to flesh out their stories. But I maintained a commitment to basing even those added details on truths I came to know from the lives of actual people; nothing is made up. The result is that some of the characters are hybrids—based primarily on one person, but including incidents culled from others’ lives. As for the riveting nature of the stories, I chose each of the featured women based not only on my association with them and their impact on me, but also for the way in which each of their stories could challenge and provoke readers. I needed seven; choosing six was simple, but I agonized over the seventh. I decided at length to include another American to balance out my point of view, and then I considered a Peace Corps office worker, an embassy employee… I don’t know why it took me so long to realize it should be another Volunteer. Once I set upon that idea, it was clear what story she would tell, and that character, therefore, is the greatest amalgam. Given the trauma her story addresses, I felt I had no right to base it entirely on any one person; the hard facts of that story are all altered.
Q: The lives of the Guatemalans you write about are short, hard, and unchanging. One woman is described as “thirtyish and looking forward to a life done living.” In stark contrast, here you are, at 37, setting off on a whole new career with the publication of your first book. To what do you ascribe such dramatic differences in the opportunities afforded you?
Ellen: The idea of reinventing oneself – of taking up a new career or relocating to a new town – is something that never crossed the mind of any of the Guatemalans I knew. (With the one glaring exception, I must note, of their dreams of perhaps someday emigrating to the United States.) Yet for Americans of my generation, reinvention is not just something we consider; it is something we expect to do, perhaps frequently. This difference in our expectations, then, is an element I think is particularly crucial. Let’s use, as an example, a female teenager. A typical fifteen-year-old Guatemalan girl expects to soon be married, having children, harvesting squash. She expects to do this very same thing for the rest of her life. A typical fifteen-year-old American girl expects to have an enormous cell phone bill. She anticipates the possibility of college, but has no idea where, and couldn’t begin to tell you what she’ll be doing in ten years. Some might call that spoiled, others lucky or blessed; still others would call it cursed. Not to exclude the impact of economics, social structures, or political institutions, one could argue that, within reason, we actualize what is expected of us.
Q: Men and missionaries take a pretty hard hit in your book. How do you respond to the charge that you’ve just put a literary spin on male- and religion-bashing?
Ellen: I like most men, and have loved my share. As for missionaries, though I don’t favor the practice of evangelism, I do, with limited reservations, respect the munificence of their intentions. I don’t know how anyone could fault me, however, for chafing at the ilk of men and missionaries I encountered with frequency in Guatemala. So I will make no apologies for what I have written. It is my truth.
Download and print this reader’s guide to share with your fellow book-groupies.
Help advance the education and status of women in Guatemala by supporting Maya Tech Learning Centers, Inc. This organization, started by my dear friend and fellow former Peace Corps Volunteer, Karen Wilk Macario, and her husband Camilo, seeks to advance educational and technological opportunities for underdeveloped Mayan communities in Guatemala through comprehensive, culturally appropriate computer access, training and development with internet and email capabilities; sponsorship and facilitation of community and youth-focused educational programming; and promotion of projects honoring Mayan heritage.