A warm, sunny day in Cusco and I am sitting in a cafe, out of the bright light, slowly eating some ice cream. Besides the waiters, only two other people claim space in the immensity of the empty cafe, though later it will be wall to wall people.
They are an older couple. The man’s face is gaunt and sharp, his hair closely cropped while the woman wears glasses and has her hair died a too light blond. Occasionally their conversation reaches me. It perked me up. They are speaking with Utah accents and have mentioned places like Bountiful, Park City and Farmington.
The likelihood the only three customers in this large cafe not oriented to tourists being from Utah seems remote. But there are factors that could make it much less remote.
Just the other day, I received an email from someone I had once run into on an airplane to Peru, though we originally met in a Salt Lake City office. His email’s title asked if I was in Cusco.
I bring him up because he is an example of an reason why there are many Utahns and many Mormons from the United States roaming around Latin America in various positions.
Like me, this man had been an LDS missionary in Latin America. He served in Peru in the sixties and I in Bolivia in the seventies. Though he has a career in high tech, he keeps returning to South America to carry out service and development.
Many returned LDS missionaries occupy positions which take them to Latin America. They have the language skills and, to a degree, the cultural skills. I suspect this is the same throughout the world.
In many cases, these former missionaries can be useful to the expansion and needs of the transnational Latter-day Saint Church, at the same time they are part of the interaction between US society and other national societies.
Students of Mormonism will see this scattered in biographies and occasional news reports, but the numerical force of it is un-known. We do not know what percentage LDS returned missionaries form in the force of Americans abroad working as part of their nation’s massive engagement with the rest of the world, whether through government, business, religion, or simply academics.
I would guess that Mormons, especially returned mission, make up a much higher relative percentage of Americans abroad than they do of Americans home, though this is merely a guess.
One thing that would make difficult any study of these returned missionaries in the more general population is that not all of them continue to be active in the Church or to continue with their Mormon identity. Some actively occlude their history of LDS missionary work. But still they are there.
I think it important to study this population, both for understanding Mormon society and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as to grasp the full history of US expansion into the world in this century and its dominance.
The couple has gone. No longer do the sounds of Utah fill my ears. Now I hear the clip, clip, and shish of local Spanish.
It will not surprise me, however, if my next random encounter with Utah and American Mormons is not far away.