Thursday, February 26, 2009


Reinaldo Mendoza makes me laugh. A lot. He's the quintessential class clown with goofy facial expressions and funny sayings. He's also thoughtful, caring, and generous. He always has something to give me: an Ag jacket, a work poster, a bag that he received from attending a conference. His kindness is genuine and infectious.

Perhaps that's why I was so surprised to learn on my trip to Sorata last weekend that the twenty-six year old UAC-CP Agronomy graduate always wanted to be a military man. But bad behavior and heavy drinking, he explained, got him kicked out of the military. His family, particularly his father, was so disappointed by this that they disowned him. "I was the black sheep of the family," he said.

UAC-CP Reinaldo Mendoza Segovia, the son of an illiterate mother and a father who studied until the 5th grade, is the first of his family to graduate from college. He hopes to get a scholarship to earn a master's degree.

Reinaldo was raised in the community of Rio Negro in the South Yungas and, after being kicked out of the military, was taken in by an aunt who told him about the UAC-CP. A friend of Sr. Damon's, Reinaldo's aunt convinced Sister to allow him to take the entrance exam--even though he was late to register. He passed the test and in 2003, by process of elimination, chose to study in the College's Agronomy Department.

At the UAC-CP Reinaldo fell into some of the same problems he had in the military. His first year, he said, he was called to the main office many times to talk to Sr. Damon. "She was like my mom," he explained. She knew Reinaldo's situation with his family, she knew money was scarce. "She would ask me, 'Why do you drink? Why are you acting out? Is it because you don't have money?"

He didn't change his behavior overnight, he admitted. It was a series of conversations with Sr. Damon, a year-long "punishment" of physical labor in Coroico Viejo (that he was later paid for), and the support of two special classmates that Reinaldo attributes to finally helping steer his life in a different direction.

Reinaldo's sister helps him get ready before his graduation ceremony at the Catholic University in La Paz last November. He now has a relationship with his three siblings and his father. His mother died when he was a child.

Sr. Damon, perhaps worried that his poor behavior was attributed to the lack of financial and emotional support received from his family, offered Reinaldo a scholarship. But he refused. "I'm a very proud person. My pride is one of the most important things," he said. "I didn't want to just be given a scholarship, I wanted to earn it."

While he studied harder to improve his grades, he also worked every weekend harvesting coca for 25 Bolivianos ($3 US) a day. It was enough, he said, to barely survive--to eat each week. But his hard work paid off--his second year at the UAC-CP he was awarded a scholarship sponsored by Carmen Pampa Fund based on academic merit and need. A scholarship, he said, that allowed him to focus on his studies and, ultimately, obtain his undergraduate degree.

Though the central office for Ayuda en Acción is located in Sorata, Reinaldo spends most of his time working in communities located about 2-3 hrs. away. He said he arrives on foot or motorcycle, rain or shine.

In July 2008 Reinaldo defended his thesis (check out Hugh's July 17th blog posting) and the following week was offered a job with CARITAS in Sorata. He was contracted to work the first six months on a humanitarian assistance program and an agricultural replantation project. Specifically, he worked to help families in communities that had suffered hardships from natural disasters. "We are present with families when disaster (flooding, hail damage, etc) happens and we are there when it's over to help them replant their crops," he explained.

During his first six months, Reinaldo worked in 35 communities. "It was really hard work," he said. "But it was beautiful to be able to help out families most in need; who are many times left without homes, without anything."

Well-respected as a professional in the community, Reinaldo is still the same goofy guy as always. Between me, Reinaldo, and our audience, the laughs had with the monkey mask were well worth the 1 Boliviano.

In November, Reinaldo was named the coordinator of a production project with Ayuda en Acción (an NGO-based in Spain that is managed by CARITAS). He works with the production of fruit trees in the area and the recent construction a nursery for a reforestation project. He also works in several small, Aymaran communities that are training women to raise chickens and guinea pigs for both household consumption and sale.

"I feel so much love and care for these people," he said. "...and that is why I work for them." When I commented that it appears that he likes his work, Reinaldo let out a "Aaah!" and then in a rare moment of seeing his serious side, he turned to look at me, smiled, and said, "Me ENCANTA mi trabajo!" ...I LOVE my job!

During my near 45 minute interview with Reinaldo, he recalled that perhaps the best message he received from Sr. Damon was one that caused him to reflect on the type of person he wanted to become. "Sr. Damon always told me, 'Look at yourself in the mirror. And ask yourself, 'Do you like what you see?'"

Today, Reinaldo Mendoza doesn't see the troubled young man he used to be. In fact, today he not only likes what he sees in the mirror, he's proud of it. He should be.

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