Sunday, December 4, 2011

Susana Donoso, who participated in an educational exchange in 1947, reflects on her experiences

A search that took me over 30 years has finally come to a close. Back in 1978, I was rummaging around in the basement at home when I came across a high school Spanish textbook, "El Camino Real," that my brother had received from a neighbor. I turned to a chapter called "Una Aventura en la Buena Vecindad," which roughly translated means "An adventure in good neighborliness." It told the story of 33 Latin American high school students who were selected to travel to the United States, live with American families and attend American schools. It didn't give a date, but it said that it happened "not too long ago." The program was called the New York Herald Tribune Forum for High School Students (later known as the World Youth Forum).

There were several factors that made this exchange unique. First, this event received widespread media coverage in its day, as the program was sponsored by one of New York's leading newspapers. Second, Pan American Airlines brought the students to the United States. Third, the students had the opportunity to meet well-known personalities such as Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am; First Lady Bess Truman; Peruvian political figure Victor  Raul Haya de la Torre; and actress Ingrid Bergman. Fourth, the students had the opportunity to participate in a panel at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to express their opinions about the United States, both positive and negative. Among the positives were the directness and friendliness of their hosts, but the students did not hesitate to mention that some of the Americans they met did not know much about Latin America. I was familiar with educational exchanges, as I was about to participate in one to Mexico in 1979, but it was evident that the Forum was something truly special. One of the students whose picture appeared in the textbook, and who participated actively in the panel discussion, was "Ecuador's friendly Susana Donoso."

In 1981, after returning from graduate studies in Bogota, Colombia, I decided to see if I could locate some of the students that participated in the program to interview them. This was a challenge in those pre-Internet days when I had to rely on libraries and microfilm collections, especially as the book did not provide a year for this particular program, and the New York Herald Tribune had closed its doors in the 1960s. I exhausted my local resources in Philadelphia and in 1984 went to the New York Public Library to do my research. After searching through the Herald Tribune archives, I did not come up with the particular Forum that I was looking for, though I found articles about other students who participated in the Forum in later years. A friend of mine, Mireya Cebamanos, did me the great favor of looking for one of the students on one of her trips to her native Panama, but was unsuccessful. In 1997, I stopped at Swarthmore College and decided to search in the New York Times archives, and finally found the year that the Forum took place. It turned out to be 1947. Internet searches at that time for some of the students proved to be unsuccessful. I would occasionally do a Google search as the years went on to see if I could find anything, but didn't come up with anything. On one of my trips to Bogota, Colombia, I searched the phone directory to find the name of the Colombian student who participated in the Forum, Rafael Moreno Castro, but it was far too common a name to stand out in the directory.

Finally, in 2010 I decided to do one more search on some of the students' names, knowing full well that those who were still alive would be about 80 years old. This time, searching for Susana Donoso, I found a genealogy that mentioned her name and some of her descendants. I was able to email her granddaughter's husband, whose name is Sebastian Donoso Bustamante and who works for a law firm in Quito, Ecuador. After several months of email exchange, we were able to nail down a date for the interview, which turned out to be Mother's Day, May 8, 2011. Shortly before the date, I learned that there was an alumni association for students who participated in the World Youth Forum during its history from 1947 to 1972. I was able to make contact with Dorothy Chen-Courtin, one of its past presidents, to inform her about the interview. Dorothy was eager to learn what the interview would bring, because 1947 was the first year that the Forum invited students from other countries. (There was a Forum in 1946 that featured students from the New York metropolitan area, so 1947 is counted as the first year of the World Youth Forum.)

Susana Donoso was celebrating Mother's Day at her daughter's house in Quito and her relatives set her up on the computer so that we could conduct the interview via Skype. I didn't have a webcam set up on my computer, but she had one on hers, so I could see how she looked today as an 81-year-old woman. She definitely retained the appearance she had in the picture taken of her in 1947, but with the added wisdom of a person who has learned a lot of valuable lessons in life. I found her to be optimistic, enthusiastic and candid, just as she was in 1947.

One of the questions I had for her, as one can imagine, was what her life has been like since participating in the Forum. The main event, from a career perspective, was that she landed a job as a secretary at the US Embassy in Quito in 1956, thanks in part to her participation in the Forum, and worked there until retiring in 1988. Nonetheless, she has kept up with world events since retiring from the Embassy and credits the Forum for fostering in her an interest in international relations, which in her opinion made a huge difference in her life, both personally and professionally. Out of all the major events that have taken place over the 64 years since her participation in the Forum, which include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the voyages to the moon, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9-11 attacks, the one event that has made the strongest impact on her was the election of Barack Obama as President. One reason for that impact may be that when she arrived in Miami in 1947 en route to New York and the Forum, she and the other students saw the "Whites only" and "Colored" signs that were a part of segregation in the South. She stressed that the election of an African American president was an event that likewise made an impression on many people in Latin America because for many years it seemed highly unlikely that it would happen.

I wanted to ask Susana if she felt that Americans were just as ignorant of Latin America now as they were in 1947, and she assured me that it was not the case. She recalled speaking before a Rotary club while participating in the forum, and the audience wanted to know if Ecuadoreans dressed in feathers and had clocks. She made an effort to be polite and still answer the question candidly, because she felt that it was precisely the goal of the Forum to do so. She also felt that her own country has progressed significantly, particularly in the increased roles of women and indigenous peoples in her society. Her family and I laughed good-naturedly as she tried to remember the name of the sneakers the natives wear - was it Reebok? The educational system in her country likewise has improved, with more opportunities for university studies for the population, and for women to get college degrees and embark on successful careers.

Susana remains, in her words, a friend of the United States, but she feels that in some cases the United States could do a better job in maintaining friendly relations with Latin America. One example is that oftentimes Latin American products encounter taxes and legal hurdles when there is an effort to export them to the United States, some of which she feels put an unnecessary burden on poor farmers and fishermen in her country. She also mentioned that the United States has political and economic competition in Ecuador that did not exist in 1947, particularly among European states, Arab states, and followers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and stressed the importance of working hard to maintain good relations.

Regarding the Forum, Susana told me that aside from the other student from Ecuador who accompanied her, she had not been able to stay in touch with the other students who traveled with her to participate in the Forum. She remains interested in learning about their whereabouts, and which ones are still alive and of sound mind. She hopes that the Forum's Alumni Association will provide her with that opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing this.

Michael Esposito said...

My pleasure! You can imagine how happy I felt when we were finally able to do the interview.