Peruvian Economists Adopt Washington, D.C.
Cecilia Valdivieso feels completely at home in Washington. She should. Cecilia and her husband, Peruvian Ambassador Luis Valdivieso, have lived and raised their children here for more than 30 years while working as economists with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, respectively. Although they now live in the official Peruvian Residence, she still belongs to the same Bethesda book club, plays bridge with the same friends, and even keeps in touch with her former neighbors from the kid’s playground group. “I remember sitting around the baby pool at Carderock Springs watching our toddlers play in the water and asking each other what books we were reading,” recalled this World Bank economist and now the mother of two grown children. “That’s when we decided to start our own book club. Some of those original members have moved, but many of us have been together since the 1980s. We still meet once a month and one member comes over from Alexandria [in Virginia] and another drives in from Annapolis [in Maryland].” Cecilia first visited Washington in 1966 during a family trip to New York’s World Fair. At the time, she was a high school exchange student in Chicago. Later, she returned to the United States as a graduate student in economics at Boston University (BU). Cecilia and her husband knew each other though from their days in Lima. They met during their undergraduate years in the school cafeteria at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú — and, at least for him, it was love at first sight. “Two to three years ago at his college class reunion in Lima, the friend who was with Luis that day told me, ‘When Luis first saw you, he said he was going to marry you.’ If I had known that,” this unusually candid diplomatic wife said, “I would have walked out the other door!” A year and a half later though, they were engaged and flew to Boston to start their graduate studies at BU. They came home to Peru to marry but returned once again to Boston to finish their doctorates in economics. They then moved to Washington in 1980 when Luis took a job at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), continuing there for three decades as he rose to become a senior advisor in the Asia and Pacific Department (1999-2008) as well as the European Department (1991-99). From 2005 to 2006, the couple lived in Sri Lanka where he was senior resident representative for the IMF and Cecilia was the U.N. Development Program gender coordinator for Asia. He also served as Peru’s finance minister from July 2008 until his appointment as ambassador to Washington in 2009. Cecilia’s full-time career at the World Bank began when their youngest was just a toddler. At first, she was interested in education issues but that slowly evolved into gender equality issues. Her country experience spans the entire globe: Afghanistan, Argentina, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, East Asia, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, South America, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Venezuela and Vietnam, along with the United States. Cecilia officially retired in November 2004 but continues as a World Bank consultant, mixing her workload with her diplomatic duties. “In Afghanistan, we worked toward the Millennium Development Goals for more girls to be in school and reduce the maternal mortality rate. In Vietnam, we made progress fighting against gender violence and helped with the wording of planned legislation. In Sri Lanka, we created a business case for investing in women, showing that policies that empower women are not charity but make good business sense. In Latin America, we edited a report on female entrepreneurship. In Jamaica, we worked to help ‘boys at risk’ who leave school early,” Cecilia explained. “And in Africa — Rwanda and Liberia — we were involved in ‘gender budgeting,’ identifying concrete programs and their costs to adequately fund gender programs and policies,” she added. “Generally, there’s a ‘disconnect’ between the new, excellent policies and what the governments actually budget. If you don’t budget for change, it just doesn’t happen. “I was also involved in consciousness-raising of both men and women — and that takes time,” she continued. “Micro-lending empowers women, raises their self-esteem, gives them a livelihood, and raises their status with their husband and with the community.” As much progress as she oversaw, however, Cecilia admits that “change in the balance of power can sometimes lead to problems in the family, especially when their husbands’ pride as the major breadwinner is challenged.” To that end, I asked if the traditional culture of Latin “machismo” remained prevalent in Peru. “My husband and I have always been equals,” Cecilia said, smiling. “And that’s fairly common today in Peru. Before, women weren’t financially independent and that makes a big difference. During our parents’ generation, men felt that they ‘owned’ women.” The couple is clearly well versed on both the economic and diplomatic fronts. Today, Cecilia helps her husband with a wide array of embassy-related endeavors. She says she’s had the chance to meet more Americans from different parts of the U.S. government than she did while at the World Bank, where her colleagues hailed from all over the world. “I also now have the opportunity to work with different charity and university groups like CARE, the Smithsonian, the Fulbright Scholars,” she said, noting that she also expects to host events for the family’s alma maters: Boston University, Harvard and Princeton. This spring, at a dinner briefing with the Women’s Diplomatic Series, the ambassador deftly explained Peru’s improved financial outlook while urging his audience to visit this Latin microcosm of different geographic regions — the Pacific Coast, with its warm climate and inviting beaches, the Andes highlands, with distinct dry and rainy seasons, and the jungle with tropical heat and rainforests. Although Peru is known for its ancient cities and the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Machu Picchu and Cusco, the ambassador reminded his audience of Peru’s abundant natural habitats as well. “We also have 4,000 species of orchids and thousands of species of wildlife, many of which exist nowhere else in the world,” he noted. For her part, Cecilia spoke about Peru’s reputation as a “must stop” on the culinary world travel map for “natural fusion cuisine,” a healthy mélange of Andean, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and West African diets. Even before the New York Times called Peruvian food “one of the great cuisines of the world,” foodies were flocking to Lima’s cevicherias (mostly luncheon spots for Peru’s famous ceviche), huariques (modest, family-run restaurants) and puerta cerrada (fashionable closed-door restaurants that are more like clubs). “People always come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been to Peru — the food is wonderful.’ I end up feeling like a concierge when they always ask me to recommend my favorite places to eat,” Cecilia said. Surprisingly, the whole family is back together in Washington now. Luis and Cecilia’s two grown children, both single, work in D.C., with 34-year-old Veronica, a graduate of Princeton and Georgetown Law School, serving as counsel to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), while Juan, 29, who also worked on Capitol Hill after graduating from Harvard Law School, now resides at a Washington law firm. “We never know when they’re coming but we love having them visit and attend events with us like this year’s Opera Ball at the Russian Embassy,” Cecilia noted. “When the children were young, we always spoke Spanish at home,” she added. “I was very conscious of that. But at school they spoke English all the time since they were each 5. Until second grade, they were enrolled in the Woods Academy, a Catholic school, and then Veronica went to Holton Arms and Juan to Landon.” Their American school experience was completely different than Cecilia’s when, as a foreign exchange student, she attended public high school in Chicago. Coming from a highly disciplined Catholic girls school in Peru run by American nuns from Philadelphia, Cecilia wasn’t used to such lax discipline, or the varied class choices or the white stuff outside. “I had never seen snow before!” Several of her siblings also settled in the United States. Her brother Greg lives in Virginia and is an economist with the Inter-American Development Bank, while her brother Manuel is a banker in New York. Her sisters though are further away: Patricia heads the Catholic University Press in Peru and Carmen is a math professor at Lund University in Sweden. “So we get together for family reunions in a different place as often as possible,” Cecilia said. “Everyone else in my husband’s family is still in Peru.” Cecilia also has connections back home and here thanks to her longtime passion for bridge. She has two bridge partners, one in Washington and one in Peru. In fact, a designated “Bronze Life Master” for the card game, she qualified twice to represent Peru in the South American Bridge Championships. In comparison, the ambassador prefers individual sports like skiing and biking. Each year, he enters the annual “Sea Gull Century” ride of 100 miles along the Eastern Shore. His father Juan was also an athlete: a famous goalkeeper in the first World Cup in Uruguay who participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In fact, Luis and Cecilia’s son Juan (named for Luis’s father) is also an Olympian. He swam the butterfly stroke in the Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000 and the Athens Summer Games in 2004. Both Veronica and Juan also recently competed in the Nation’s Triathlon in D.C., where Juan won the Congressional Challenge Race. “He placed 27th out of more than 4,000,” reported his proud mother. “Luis and I were there, watching them and taking lots of pictures.” “I love Washington,” she added emphatically. “It’s like I go from one home to another. As a city, Washington is so livable. The scale is not so huge or crowded as New York. Now, it’s very cosmopolitan — there are people from all over — and I love the museums, theaters and social life here.” Although they still try to keep in touch with their old friends, neighbors and colleagues, I asked if she felt lonely in their new residence, located down a long drive through the woods with no other homes or neighbors in sight. “It would be different if we had no neighbors and we didn’t know the city. But we do have lots of friends already and we do know our way around,” she replied. “Sometimes, we drive down to Rock Creek [Park] or the canal. Or we stroll outside at night if it’s not 100 degrees out with high humidity. “We used to live on Capri Place in the Palisades behind Congressional Country Club. We had wildlife there too, but here at the residence we are in the middle of D.C.,” she continued, looking out at the four deer grazing close to the glass doors that open onto the 25-acre estate bordering Rock Creek Park. “You don’t expect to see deer, foxes and all sorts of wildlife this close to the city. It’s kind of surprising. It’s a big privilege to live in a place like this. “The Peruvian art in this house exemplifies Peruvian culture, whether it is a religious painting from the 17th century or pottery, textiles that are 2,000 years old,” she added. “Sometimes, I am sitting reading something contemporary, maybe the newspapers, and I look up for a moment and see all this fabulous art. You feel humbled and awed.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.