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From the Peace Corps to People Magazine
Ron Arias

By John Coyne

Ron Arias in Sidney Australia with water behind him
Ron Arias, on assignment for People magazine in Sydney, Australia, in 1992.
As Ron Arias tells it, he doesn't know exactly why he joined the Peace Corps. "I saw it as a chance to go into the unknown. Life abroad, with some good Samaritan work thrown into the mix, sounded pretty attractive. Also, Peace Corps, especially in those early years, was seen as idealistic, doing something noble, heroic even. I don't think anyone ever joins the Peace Corps for one reason only. I certainly didn't. And then I got lucky. I got to go to Latin America."

When Ron Arias signed up in 1963, he was sent to the Peruvian Andes where he developed a nutrition program and established a summer camp for campesino kids.

"It's a long time ago now," says Arias, "over 30 years, but I still think about Peace Corps, almost every day of my life."

What also happened to Ron Arias in Peru is what happens to many Hispanic Volunteers in Latin America: he learned a great deal about himself and his ancestors.

"In Peru, the food, music, customs, racial mixtures, all paralleled my own Mexican roots. In the end, those two years made me less parochial, less ignorant of the world outside of my own Los Angeles neighborhood.

"When I returned from Peru," Arias explains, "my sense of cultural identity was stronger than when I had left. My Spanish had improved tremendously, and I knew so much more about my Hispanic ancestry."

Ron Arias in Peru on a horse
Arias during Peace Corps service at the Inca ruin of Viroccocha near Sicuani, Peru, in 1964.

After his Peace Corps years, Arias earned a masters degree in journalism at UCLA. He then traveled and studied in Latin America and Spain before beginning to teach English full time at a junior college in San Bernardino.

It was during these years that he wrote Tamazunchale, a comic novel set in Peru and Los Angeles. "A lot of this novel came out of my own Chicano background, my Mexican family, the Los Angeles I grew up in, and my Peace Corps experience in the Andes." First published in 1975, the book was nominated for the National Book Award and is still in print.

According to Arias, the Peace Corps also directly related to his successful career as a college teacher. "It helped me become a more creative, less judgmental teacher. No one job could have given me such sustained contact with so many people living on the edge of life, living as probably two-thirds of the world lives their lives. Such a 'classroom' was invaluable."

In the mid-1980s, Arias left teaching and went to work for People magazine, where once again his Peace Corps experience helped him.

"As a journalist, I've been sent to Ethiopia, Somalia, Haiti, Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, and of course all over the U.S. I've covered earthquakes, riots, famines, wars, death, and destruction. I'm one of the few writers at the magazine who knows their way around the world's poorer countries. Peace Corps teaches you to fit in anywhere, be ready for anything, be flexible, be undeterred by roadblocks, be sensitive to your hosts and listen well. All of that is great training for any journalist, or for that matter, for anything you do in life."

"There's no doubt that I have been influenced by the people I worked with in Peru," says Arias. "As a senior writer at People, I think I see stories that others might not see because of my experience. And when I write some tight, moving, human-drama in miniature that's emotionally wrenching to me, I know that about 30 million people will read the piece, and I might be able to do some good with my prose. That's what happens when you are a Volunteer. You're always trying to do good."

One of Arias' People stories did just that, and it became the subject of his second book, Five Against the Sea. It was a survival book that grew out of a 1988 cover story called "Miracle at Sea."

Ron Arias with people and plane behind him
Fresh off the plane: Ron Arias arriving in Peru to begin his Peace Corps service.

"I was in Medell´┐Żn, Colombia, at the time," recalls Arias, "doing a drug story for People, when I got a call from my editor in New York to drop what I was doing and catch the first plane to Los Angeles to interview five Costa Rican fishermen. They had just been rescued south of Hawaii after spending five months adrift in the Pacific- a world record for such survival feats. So I met them in L.A. after they had flown from Honolulu, and then followed them back to Costa Rica. One reason I pulled off their story, I believe, was that I had lived among people like them in the Andes. I knew what was important to them. I understood their background and their culture."

Arias' account was later optioned by a movie company and he arranged for the fishermen to be paid for their story. The book was also bought by Reader's Digest Books and published in hardback and paperback by New American Library.

Looking at the success of this book, Arias believes it was because of the grand theme: survival. "It was successful," he says, "because it was about the basics of life: work, hope, sustenance, pain, and death. Having lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer among the very poor, I understood what these fishermen were all about. Now, as a writer, it is these basics which I look for in a story. I suppose my Peace Corps days were the first time I started looking for what really matters in life."

John Coyne was a Volunteer in Ethiopia (1962-64) and is the manager of the Peace Corps' New York Regional Recruitment Office.

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