PaliHi’s Judith Lopez Joined Peace Corps

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer

Judith Lopez first became interested in Middle Eastern languages when a friend’s grandmother mistook her for Iranian and began speaking Farsi to her.

“I found it interesting that people could perceive me a certain way based on my looks,” said Lopez, a 2005 PaliHi graduate. “I thought it would be funny to learn a language to play with that idea in a way.”

She began taking classes in Arabic while at Dickinson College, a school in Pennsylvania that encourages students to travel and explore other cultures. Lopez, who earned a four-year Posse scholarship to attend Dickinson, also traveled to Morocco during her college years, and these travels encouraged her.

Lopez, who speaks Spanish fluently and is of Mexican descent, found Arabic to be a challenge, but she was interested in the culture, way of life and religion. After a two-year stint in AmeriCorps, she joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a post in Irbib, the second largest city in the Arabic-speaking country of Jordan.

PaliHi graduate Judith Lopez in Amman, the capital city of Jordan, where she was a member of the Peace Corps
PaliHi graduate Judith Lopez in Amman, the capital city of Jordan, where she was a
member of the Peace Corps

“I had to really face Arabic then; there was no escape at that point,” Lopez said. “When you have to use it all the time, it’s very different than learning it in the classroom.”

Lopez, who earned a degree in both psychology and art studio from Dickinson in 2009, had been assigned to work on art projects with children with special needs, a type of work that was similar to what she did in Tucson and Baltimore for AmeriCorps.

However, just as with her friend’s grandmother, people often thought she was from the Middle East due to her tan skin and brown hair and eyes. People often assumed she was a native Jordanian who could speak fluent Arabic, but her language skills at that point were more basic. She could greet people and make simple conversation.

“They said, ‘She’s Jordanian; she’s just faking,’” Lopez said. Some people “couldn’t believe an American could look the way that I did.”

However, her ability to blend into the community perhaps gave her an advantage over other Peace Corps volunteers. “The more you stick out, the more you look different, the more people perceive you as a foreigner,” Lopez said. “Because of my features—day to day harassment, such as men saying something on the street—I didn’t face as much as other people with European or Asian features. I just came off as being Arab.”

She found Irbib to be an overall comfortable and welcoming city that she missed after she returned to the United States. Because it was a large, modern city, there wasn’t pressure to wear a hijab, and she was also welcome to wear jeans or other clothing that she might enjoy in the United States.

In addition, the culture had a warm connectedness among residents. For example, in Jordan people normally befriend their neighbors, and so after work, she would spend time watching television with her neighbors or simply hanging out with them.

Upon returning to Los Angeles in December of 2013, “I missed that, because here in the United States, you don’t really do that,” Lopez said. “In Jordan, it’s embedded in the culture. It’s expected that you would get to know your neighbors and visit with them.”

The nostalgia for that closeness stayed with her for about a year. “Every time I heard Arabic out in the street, there was an excitement that came over me,” she noted. “I felt that urge to visit my neighbors. I missed that daily ritual of visiting each other and talking to each other, that shared time. But then over time, I again became accustomed to American culture, where we all individually do our thing.”

However, that first year back, her nostalgia, which included sometimes searching out Arabian food, led her to her future fiancé. She had moved to Chicago in the fall of 2014 to earn a master’s degree in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and one day she wandered into an Arabian restaurant, where everybody who worked there, including her fiancé, happened to be from Jordan.

The two fell in love, and after graduating last year, Lopez remained in Chicago, where she began working as a therapist for the nonprofit Pilsen Wellness Center. Her experience in Jordan and with Arabic continues to give her insights into the culture that might be different than that of Americans who haven’t traveled to the area. For example, she said the way the media sometimes presents the hijab (headscarf) as oppressive or controlling is not true in Jordan, which is about 95 percent Muslim.

“The culture influences [wearing a hijab], and family values have a role,” Lopez said. “But I think women there have the big decision in what they choose to wear and how they wear it.”

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