Updated: 4 days ago
"Then how do I use my citizenship, my education, the knowledge that I've obtained, and my life experiences... to help influence one life?" (Flor, Episode 50)
This is the 50th episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad! Can you believe it? I almost can't. But then again, I can! Because I've been doing the work to keep this show going, and I'm glad to close it out for the year with such a sweet and purpose-minded person as today's guest. (You read that correctly. This is the last regular episode of 2019, and after next week I'll be taking a break until sometime in January 2020! Be sure to check out next week's "Ten Cents" episode to hear my reflections and such for the last time this year!)
A couple months ago, Flor Montero reached out to me on her own via Instagram. However, I also like to think of her as a referral, because apparently she heard about Young, Gifted and Abroad months ago through her friend Tiffany Green (episode 38). Flor told me she'd love to share her experiences studying in Jordan, volunteering in Nicaragua with the Peace Corps, and doing various projects in her current home of Costa Rica. So here we are! Flor grew up in New York City and spent most of her young life in Dominican communities in the Bronx and uptown Manhattan. Her parents had immigrated to NYC from the Dominican Republic, making Flor a first-generation American. Not only that, but Flor was also the first in her family to go off to college, and the first one to earn a college degree. As an undergraduate student at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, she added on yet another first for her family: traveling to the Middle East.
Flor's major was undeclared at the time; she was leaning toward psychology but was also interested in political science or international development. During her junior year, she was considering study abroad options when a friend informed her about an upcoming program in Jordan that was still taking applications. At the time, the University of Bridgeport had a partnership with Princess Sumaya University of Technology (PSUT) in Jordan, and a group of UB students would be spending three months there learning about Jordanian history and culture, and also studying Arabic. Flor applied, was accepted, and later arrived in Amman, Jordan in the summer of 2012. She was one of two undergraduate students among seven graduate students in the group.
Outside of classes, Flor's program also included trips to historical sites, and every student in her group had an internship to do (she and the other undergrad student worked at The Jordan Museum labeling natural herbs.) The learning process continued even in the residential building where Flor lived. The majority of her group were women (most of the other PSUT students in their classes were women too!), and they were the only North Americans staying in the women-only building. Meeting fellow residents—including women who were refugees and women who lived apart from their families while furthering their educational or professional pursuits—helped Flor understand the demographic variety of Jordan. It also exposed her to how women exercise their rights and become empowered in that part of the world. Such revelations inspired Flor to pursue international development as a career path; she wanted to build close proximity with people of all walks of life, and help provide access to the resources and information they might need.
Flor returned to New York to begin her senior year, and two weeks into the semester one of her professors invited a Peace Corps recruiter to speak to the class. Flor had actually never heard of the Peace Corps before that day, but she was convinced that this volunteer program would be her chance to sustainably serve a community in another country. (Plus, she would get a two-year break from having to repay student loans.) So she started her application for the Peace Corps that very semester, applying in October 2012 and eventually departing to Nicaragua in March 2014. In the meantime, she graduated and started working for the human rights organization Amnesty International while awaiting updates on her application status, and she was offered placements in sub-Saharan Africa and then Guatemala. Later, the choice between sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America came up again, and as an Afro-Latina who would've appreciated either option, Flor deferred to where the Peace Corps thought she'd be the most use, and that place turned out to be Nicaragua. She would live and work in the Rio San Juan area of the country, which borders Costa Rica.
Though the Peace Corps is a two-year commitment (27 months), Flor extended her service for another year because she enjoyed Nicaragua and her work as a community health educator so much. It wasn't about being a wannabe savior or providing arbitrary short-term solutions. It was about becoming deeply knowledgeable of the people she was serving, understanding their needs, and working together with them to build the vision that they wanted for their community by expanding on efforts that were already in place. For her, that was the best part of the Peace Corps. Volunteering in Nicaragua was also personally transformative for Flor. She was able to better appreciate the rural lifestyle and agricultural work that played a major role in her family's history back in the D.R., and she met her current partner, who is a Nicaraguan musician and social worker.
After three years in the Peace Corps, Flor and her partner moved to the capital city of Managua where she started teaching at an international school and working with a local non-profit organization. In April 2018, protests broke out in response to the president of Nicaragua announcing a social security reform that would increase taxes and decrease benefits. As a former field organizer who had worked to promote human rights, Flor was proud and inspired to see Nicaraguans demonstrating for their rights. At the same time, however, she was also saddened to witness how the government and police were using violence to suppress the protests. The situation became increasingly unsafe, and the school that she and her partner worked at closed due to so many expats leaving Managua, so the couple decided to relocate to nearby Costa Rica.
Tracing the world
It was incredibly painful for them to leave their home and detach from the plans they'd had for their life together in Nicaragua. Flor had even been in the process of obtaining long-term residency there. But even in Costa Rica, Flor has managed to find new ways to learn and serve. After transitioning to her new home, she spent a few months back in New York decompressing and then working with the Women's March. (Notably, she was one of hundreds of women arrested in Washington, D.C. for protesting during the Kavanaugh supreme court nomination hearings.) This involvement in activism, in addition to knowing the Dominican Republic's own history with dictatorship, ignited Flor's desire to support Nicaraguan refugees more diligently upon returning to Costa Rica.
Though she's not sure about the long term, Costa Rica will likely be Flor's home for the next few years at least. Since late 2018 she has been teaching English to refugees, interviewing women about their experiences of gender-based violence, and doing healing circles for her clients. She has also become acquainted with local Afro-feminist spaces, and hopes to visit more Afro-descendant populations throughout Latin America and document their stories. Flor mentioned to me that Black and Brown people have been "tracing the world" for ages, and though that power has been compromised by structures like colonialism, she hopes that more of us will reclaim our power to travel freely with purpose and intention. Also, she recently announced that she and her partner are expecting a baby, so they have that to look forward to as well! Flor can be found on Instagram (@flor. y. ser).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Thank You, Sis! (JORDAN/NICARAGUA/COSTA RICA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Danielle G. is the creator and host of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.