Friday, May 29, 2015

4/10/86, Thursday

4/10/86, Thursday

There is so much poverty here. It’s hard to put into words but some of the campesinos literally dress in rags, the cloth so threadbare that it can’t possibly offer much protection from the elements. They eat just a bowl of beans and a few tortillas and they have to work very, very hard just for that. I’m sure that in the U.S., we’d call their houses shacks. Many are put together with scavenged building materials from bombed or demolished sites and do not have indoor plumbing. Outhouses are common. On top of all this, the country is at war and their kids are being sent off to fight. How is it that they don’t break? People smile through it. Walk by any house in Esteli and you can hear people singing at the top of their lungs while doing their chores.

Last night, we went to a party for Francie’s friend, Paco. It was very interesting to see how politically aware everyone is. The party consisted of a lot of former combatientes and others who at some point were integrated in the struggle. Everyone sat around discussing internal and external affairs and, in particular, the rights of women and their participation in the revolution. I've never been to a party like that. It was so odd to hear the women telling the men exactly what they were thinking and what needed to be done to promote equal opportunity. Who talks like that at a party? In L.A., a party involves getting dressed up, getting drunk, and maybe finding someone to have sex with. Meaningful talk is optional.

I like to hear the men and women refer to each other as compañero and compañera or even the shortened compa. The word can mean partner or companion; it’s so much sweeter than calling someone “honey” or “baby.” I’d much rather be an equal partner and companion than sweet or childlike.

There was no dancing at the party, no games, no chips or dip. A compañera brought a bottle of homemade rum and I took polite sips of what I suspected was really paint thinner. Everyone drank in moderation and the general mood seemed to indicate that discussion was the best entertainment. People exchanged passionate, sometimes opposing viewpoints. They listened, reflected, and offered thoughtful responses. Everyone was engaged and once again I had the feeling that people in this country were somehow more alive than people in the U.S. It made me sad for my country, where people get bored at parties and we often feel the need to drink before we can talk in a social setting and even then, we rarely say anything that we feel this passionately about. It seems like a heated discussion in the U.S. is considered impolite; here, it’s considered stimulating.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

4/9/86, Wednesday

Archbishop Oscar Romero
4/9/86, Wednesday

Today I went to the Salvadoran agricultural cooperative along with three other students from the NICA school. I thought I was gonna faint! It was hot, heavy work. I was planting rows of tomatoes and hoeing little irrigation ditches. I tied a bandana around my head to keep my hair back and it was soaked with sweat within minutes. I got blisters on my hands and fingers from clutching the handle of the hoe. Every now and then, some disgusting bug would poke its head up and I’d clobber it with the hoe. The first time I saw the ugly insects I started to scream but I quickly felt embarrassed by my sissy, city-girl behavior as my co-workers communicated their annoyance with a quick glance. After that, I simply hit the bugs with the edge of my hoe, attempting to slice them in half. I felt mean doing it but they freaked me out.

Our Salvadoran co-workers are refugees from the war in El Salvador. Some of them were part of the FMLN, Farabundo Marti Liberacion Nacional, others were denounced by orejas, informants who accuse people of conspiring to overthrow the government. Those accusations are as good as a death sentence. The FMLN is an armed guerrilla organization trying to do for El Salvador what the FSLN has done here. Our compañeros had to flee their country to avoid death and/or torture but they’re still committed to raising awareness of their cause. Talking to them while we worked helped me take my mind off my aching body. As we listened to their stories of political repression and corruption, our minds were distracted from the physical strain. Some of these compañeros have lost family members to the struggle and all of them have lost loved ones. They talk about Bishop Romero’s assassination and the subsequent massacre of mourners at his funeral by the police. I can tell that the pain is still fresh, it’s generational. Their parents and grandparents have fought against Las Catorce, the fourteen families that made up the oligarchy for as long as they can remember, so even though the heat was terrible and every inch of me ached, I felt like I could push through the work. It seemed worth the pain to help them out, to show solidarity in my own very small way.

In the evening the driver dropped us off at the school again, just in time for a charla with the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs of the Revolution. It was heartbreaking hearing the mothers tell and probably relive the pain of their loved one’s death and in some cases, their torture. Several of the stories involved gory dismemberment and my stomach turned as I thought of cutting insects in half with my hoe that day. The thought that someone could do that to a person made me sick. They took turns telling their stories until every eye at the charla was teary. 

NICARAGUA. Esteli. 1986. A mother sits in front of her son whose legs were blown off by a Contra landmine. The victim's wife sits on the other side of the bed. Photo by Larry Towell

At the end, one of the mothers told us that she wanted us to know what our tax dollars are doing here in Nicaragua and that although it was hard for them to talk about the terrible tragedies that had happened to their families, the purpose was for us to understand the cruelty and inhumanity being inflicted on them as a result of our government’s financial and military support of the Contras. They urged us to help them change the situation. I felt so bad. How is it that they don’t hate us?

I want to help but how can I change it?

Archbishop Oscar Romero gained great popularity in El Salvador in the seventies when he began speaking out against poverty, social injustice and the assassination of political dissidents. His Sunday sermons were broadcast on the radio and had a far reaching effect as they provided a rallying point for disenfranchised Salvadorans. In 1980 Romero was fatally shot while celebrating mass. His funeral was attended by over 250,000 people. The ceremony was disrupted by smoke bombs and gun shots directed at the mourners. The attack left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. It was believed that the Salvadoran government was behind the attack.

Shortly after this the country plunged into civil war.

Monday, May 25, 2015

4/8/86, Tuesday

4/8/86, Tuesday

Last night was crazy! We had been at the construction site all day and the sun was already setting when the driver dropped us off at the NICA school. One of the women who runs the school invited us to her house for a glass of Flor de Caña. Hillary is an American ex-pat who’s been living in Esteli for a few years now and she’s been great at giving us tips on adapting to our new surroundings. She’s also one of the few people here who can afford to keep alcohol handy for entertaining. Most people buy, trade or grow what they consume on a daily basis. My family doesn't even have a refrigerator. Our kitchen is a small room with a table, a stove and two small cupboards that hold salt, dry beans, and other bare necessities. The sink is outside and it’s used for washing hands, clothes and dishes.

Anyway, I’m getting off track. Christie and Nancy, two of the students who are studying Spanish went with me to Hillary’s for the local rum. Occasionally, if gaseosas are available, Flor de Caña is mixed with cola and lime to make a fancy Cuba Libre but tonight, we drank it warm and straight. We only had one drink before we realized it was getting late and our families would wonder where we’d gone, so we decided it was time for us to leave. Christie, whose Nicaraguan family lives way on the other side of town was afraid to walk home alone as it was well after 10 pm and quite a distance.

Since Nancy and I live in the same neighborhood, we walked Christie home first before turning back toward our own houses. We were having a great time, talking and joking along the way when we suddenly heard automatic rifle fire in the streets. We jumped over the shrubbery of a nearby house and ducked behind the bushes, our hearts pounding as we tried to calculate the proximity of the shots and whether or not they were approaching. The sound of the automatic rifles was close but didn't seem to be advancing.

I was acutely aware that if someone sprayed our hiding place with bullets, the hedges would offer no protection. I crouched, thinking of hitting the ground belly first, like I've seen in dozens of action movies but as I deliberated, the gun fire suddenly stopped. Nancy and I froze in our crouched positions, listening to see if anyone was coming, trying not to move, daring not to even breathe. Minutes crawled by while we looked at each other, waiting for more gun fire, preferably in the distance but it was eerily quiet - no sound coming from any of the neighborhood houses, everyone lying low.

After what felt like a very long time we felt bold enough to signal and start whispering to each other, neither of us sure if it was safe to get up and start walking home again. Eventually, we worked up the nerve to resume our journey. Our easy, joking stroll a thing of the past, we became Olympic speed walkers the rest of the way home, pointing out good places to duck in case the gunshots came back. The whole experience felt surreal: one minute we were drinking warm rum, the next we were dodging bullets. It’s almost as though we have to ignore the war to continue with everyday life. It’s oddly easy to forget about the war but we are in a state of emergency. The war does exist and it’s all around us.

Friday, May 22, 2015

4/7/86, Monday

4/7/86, Monday

I woke up very early this morning and after a big cup of thick black coffee and a bowl of beans, I felt ready to go out and do some construction. A small group of us met at the NICA school, where we waited for a ride to our work site out in the country. Since the school’s Spanish classes are in the morning, the Spanish students would not be part of the construction brigade, but we had a few volunteers from the community and from the Salvadoran collective.

We were all in good spirits, eager to get to work but it only took a couple of hours for my little bubble to burst. I discovered that I am not cut out for masonry work. When we first got to the site, they had me laying bricks but apparently I sucked at it, so they sent me down to the bottom of a hill to fetch a load of bricks in a wheelbarrow. It was tough because the terrain was rocky and very uneven. Pushing a cart load of bricks is heavy work and frankly, I’m a little flabby these days since I haven’t been going to the gym. When I hit a rock on the way up, I lost control of the cart and couldn't keep it from tipping over. All I could do was watch the bricks careen down the hillside, breaking on their way down.

"I'm here to help!"

I felt terrible. Carrie sneered at me. I think she was secretly happy that I was proving to be the fuck-up she imagines me to be. Everyone else tried to hide their chagrined expressions, saying it was okay but I could tell they were thinking I should have stayed home. I cleaned up my mess and went back to bricklaying after the mortar application method had been explained to me again and I seemed to do a bit better.

Working out in the open air in the middle of the country is something I never thought I would like but for a few moments, standing on that green hill, breathing the cool, fresh air and watching a little posse of ragtag kids running after each other, I could understand the attraction. An hour later, that charm would wear off. By midday I was sweaty, tired and hungry and even the kids didn't look as cute.

When it was time to go in and eat, I was hungry but I felt like such a poseur, I didn't think I deserved the bowl of beans and corn tortillas that I was handed. I felt certain that the money spent on the bricks I’d broken could feed this family for a week. The kids ran around barefoot, with clothes that were so old they were practically transparent and the house we were eating in made the Little House on the Prairie look posh. I tried to turn down the food but the cook insisted. Obviously, she hadn’t seen me drop the bricks.

Fuck this!

Part of the value of participating in a cooperative construction project is going through the process of building relationships, it’s every bit as important as the process of building a house. True, I messed up, but if others were willing to forgive me, I could have and should have forgiven myself. Indulging in self-pity is a waste of time, better to accept a mistake and try to move forward with a positive attitude.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

4/6/86, Sunday

4/6/86, Sunday

Today started off a lazy day, playing cards at a neighbor’s house. When I got home, I found that Francie had company. She had a friend over, Comandante Gladys Baez of the Sandinista armed forces, a short woman with indigenous features who wore her hair in braids. She looked more like someone getting ready to bake a batch of cookies than lead an army. She was really warm and friendly and kissed me on the cheek when she met me.

Comandante Baez insisted that I call her Gladys and seemed surprised when Francie said I was American. Gladys complimented me on my Spanish and Francie agreed, saying I acted, looked and spoke like a Nica, which I know she meant as a big compliment. I took it as one. We sat down in the living room to talk. Gladys asked me about life in the United States and what people in the U.S. thought of the war between the Contras and Sandinistas. I confirmed the things she already knew: that Reagan was on a campaign to change public opinion of the counterrevolutionary Contras by talking them up as patriots who are protecting us from the spread of communism and by refusing to use the word Contra and employing instead the sympathetic sounding name “Freedom Fighters” when referring to them. I told her that it was working. Furthermore, they were now being described as advisors rather than combatants, something that the Nicaraguans knew was a blatant lie.

Gladys moved on from the topic of Reagan and asked me about women in my country. That was hard for me to talk about. It seems that the death of the Equal Rights Amendment has stalled any progress for the women’s movement. I don’t understand what happened with the ERA and I can’t explain it to her, I guess I’m just too far removed from the mainstream. I told her I was involved in music and that my musician friends were generally open-minded about politics and women’s rights. I said that the kind of music I play has been liberating for women because it’s more about having something to say than being a great musician, so women, even those who were novice musicians, were not intimidated or shut out due to lack of experience. She was happy to hear that more women were playing music and writing songs and encouraged me to write a song about Nicaragua and share the experiences I was having here with my friends back home. She didn’t seem much older than me but she took on a motherly tone as she reminded me “sin la mujer, no hay revolucion” (without equality for women, there is no revolution). I’d never heard anyone say this before, despite the fact that it seemed like such a simple and obvious truth.

Later, when Gladys had left, I had to ask Francie again if I had heard correctly. Was Gladys really a comandante? I guess if I tried hard, I could imagine her as a guerrilla but a comandante? She didn’t look or act like a warrior, much less a commander. I couldn’t imagine her bossing the men around. She looked like so many women in East L.A., ordinary working class moms and tias. My Nicaraguan mother assured me that Gladys was one of the first and most respected Sandinista comandantes. She laughed at me and asked why I doubted her. I said that I didn't think Gladys looked strong enough to be taken seriously as a comandante.

“Why don’t you think she’s strong?” Francie asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I lied.

I was too ashamed to say it was because I expected muscles and a snazzy uniform; inwardly, I had to admit that I expected a man. I had never seen a woman who looked like Gladys have any power. In my world, women who looked like Gladys took care of kids, did housework, warmed up tortillas. I glimpsed myself, just for a second, in all my sexist, racist and colorist ugliness and I quickly stepped away from the mirror.

Francie cocked her head, looked up at me and said, “Es MUY fuerte. She fought alongside (FSLN founder) Carlos Fonseca,” she assured me. Francie went on to tell me a little about what she and Gladys had done together. They were pioneers in AMNLAE (Asociacion de Mujeres Nicaraguenses, Luisa Amanda Espinoza) an organization which is named after the first female casualty in the war against Somoza. Espinoza escaped a life of poverty and abuse to become a revolutionary. Originally, the organization was to address the needs and concerns of women who were fighting to overthrow Somoza; now, it is dedicated to increasing the political participation of women in post-revolutionary Nicaragua. Francie and Gladys were not only active members, they were founding members.

“Gladys herself was tortured by Somoza’s guardia,” Francie continued. “She was captured by Somoza and held prisoner for over two months in solitary confinement. She never broke down.”

Comandante Gladys Baez

I imagine this braided woman in an interrogation room, bright lights shining in her face, electrodes shocking her as she refuses to talk. Sweat runs down her lovely, weather-worn face, where a look of strength and resolve is carved deeper than Mt. Rushmore. Unexpectedly, a man and some snot-nosed kids look into the interrogation room.

“Gladys, we need some warm tortillas,” they call to her.

“Heat your own damn tortillas!” she replies. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Monday, May 18, 2015


4/5/86, Saturday

Last night we had a frightening experience. Some time between 11:00 pm and midnight, we heard machine gunfire going off somewhere in town. The shooting continued erratically for about an hour while I lay in my bed, feeling scared. I thought the town was under siege. I had to pee desperately but I have to go outside to get to the bathroom, so despite the fact that I was terrified of leaving my bedroom, I quietly walked outside and then tiptoed back again. After awhile, the shooting died down and I was able to sleep a little but I had a pretty good scare.

This morning, nobody seemed to be quite sure what the machine gunfire was all about. My Nicaraguan mother, Francie says she got up and got dressed in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. She is perplexed, she says it may have just been a bolo (drunk) having war flashbacks. Luckily, two of my little sisters slept through the incident. Anyway, the real attack came from the bugs. I’m covered with bug bites despite the sleeping bag, repellent, and mosquito netting. C’est la vie.

Contra (Counter-revolutionary soldier) attacks were very common in Northern Nicaragua during this time period, so people throughout Esteli had legitimate cause to be concerned about their safety. 

Around this time, Sister Nancy Donovan, a Catholic nun who was working in Esteli was captured by Contras while enroute to the nearby town of Limay. Nine people who were traveling with her were slain. She later told her story and related some of her conversations with her captors: 
Sister Nancy: "You people always complain that, with the revolution, there’s a scarcity of certain things; so, why did you burn our vehicle? " 
Contra: "Because it belonged to the state." 
Sister Nancy: "Ask the people from Limay, and they’ll tell you: that was our bus."  
Contra: "No, that bus didn’t belong to the people. If it had, nobody would’ve had to pay." 
Sister Nancy: "Why do you kidnap and kill people?" 
Contra: "We only do that with Sandinistas and the ones who belong to the army." 
Sister Nancy: "But we weren’t with the army." 
Contra: "You’re all Sandinistas." 
Sister Nancy: "Are you going to let me go?" 
Contra: "Is this the first time you’ve had any contact with us?"
Sister Nancy: "Yes."  
Contra: "I bet you thought we were no good." 
Sister Nancy: "It’s not up to me to judge anyone. All people have their own conscience. What’s important are their acts." 
Contra: "We only harm the Sandinistas. The revolution’s evil; it’s communist and atheist."  
Sister Nancy: "How do you know that?" 
Contra: "Before we never had to line up with a card to get sugar. That’s communism." 
Sister Nancy: "And how do you know that the revolution is atheist?" 
Contra: "The nine comandantes are against religion." 
Sister Nancy: "But have you people had any problems practicing your religion?" 
Contra: "No, not us."
Sister Nancy: "Well, I’m a nun, and the only problems I’ve had have been with you people, in places where you’ve been."
Sister Nancy added: “The counterrevolutionaries who were holding me had very good uniforms. The majority of them had the letters ‘FDN.’ One had ‘US Army’ on his arm, and another ‘Soldier of Fortune, Second Convention.’ Everything they had seemed quite new. One of them said to me: ‘There’s a plane that comes by very quietly in the night and drops us really good provisions.’ ” 

Source articles and more information here:

Friday, May 15, 2015

4/4/86, Friday

4/4/86, Friday 

I’ve been hanging out with Audrey a lot. She’s one of the students at Escuela NICA. I like that she seems happy and eager to fill a room with her raspy laugh. We’re going through a similar journey, both of us are amazed at how far we’ve come since we first got here. She also saved me from myself. One of the women at the school started to give me a derisive smirk when she saw me applying colored lip balm but before I had a chance to snap at her, Audrey came over and asked to borrow it. Carrie, the smirk-giver quipped, “You two always have to look good, don’t you?” 

Audrey with other Escuela Nica students

Audrey laughed at her good-naturedly and I responded “we don’t have to, we just can’t help it.” Audrey is cute, she has short, auburn hair and a thin frame and neither of us wears much more than tinted lip balm and mosquito repellent. Carrie doesn’t wear make- up or deodorant and she brags about it as though it somehow strengthens her political views. She’s not always annoying but she sometimes acts like a know-it-all. She goes around correcting people’s Spanish pronunciation but she’s not even a teacher, she’s just another student. She doesn’t ever correct my Spanish, she’d better not even try. 

Audrey and I have learned to deal with the bugs, lizards, and rats. We’ve learned to eat food we’d never even heard of before. We’ve compromised our own standards of sanitation. We’ve learned to sleep through the clucking of the hens, the crowing of the roosters, and the pigeons walking and cooing on the tins roofs overhead. 

This morning, I saw a woman walking a cute little black pig on a leash. Its legs were moving really fast and the woman was having a hard time keeping up. Before I could take out my camera, the woman and the pig were halfway down the street. Chickens and pigs are everywhere, they walk along the road with everyone else. I have noticed that there are no homeless people or beggars to be seen. I don’t know if they exist, everyone seems to have some kind of job.

Kelly Thompson, 2015

I brought some cheap, lightweight tennis shoes that I wear at work, thinking they would be perfect for walking, but they are no match for the sett paved streets of Esteli. I think I packed inadequately. Contact lenses, make up and sweaters are out of the question, I wish I had a good pair of walking shoes and toilet paper instead. This afternoon the water was cut off unexpectedly. I was really thirsty and decided to go to the market to buy some soda, maybe even rescue the family from another meal of beans and rice, which incidentally, we have eaten everyday since I got here. 

When I got to the store, I noticed that many of the shelves were empty. There were some bottles of hot sauce, dry beans, dry rice, a small selection of ugly looking vegetables, a few household items and very little else. Everything was inexpensive. I asked the woman behind the counter about the scarce selection. She informed me that when something is in stock, it is cheap enough that anyone can buy it and so it sells out quickly. 

“The US has declared an embargo against us, but they will not break us. We’ll eat beans forever if we have to.” There was disapproval in the woman’s voice. “You are a guest in this country. You do not buy the groceries.” It suddenly struck me that what I was doing was rude. Who did I think I was, coming to their country, thinking I could buy better food because I had more money? I felt stupid and decided against the groceries, then asked her for some toilet paper instead. 

Papel hygienico?” 

She looked amused. “No hay. Go back to your family and live like a Nicaraguan.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

4/3/86 PM, Thursday

4/3/86 PM, Thursday

I wait in the classroom where there are five chairs and four tables of assorted heights, shapes and sizes. Soon students of all ages, from children to adults start to trickle in. They greet each other warmly. Some carry chairs, the early birds snag one of the five available chairs while others resign themselves to a lesson on foot. 

A man in coveralls has apparently come straight from work. His clothes and hands look dirty but no one seems to mind. A woman comes in with an infant in her arms and a little girl pulling at her skirt. One of the early birds offers her his chair but she declines, choosing instead to sway with her baby at the back of the room while the little girl goes out to play with some of the other children who are waiting for their parents to attend class. 

Lorraine Scognomillo, 2015

This group is on Lesson Ten. The teacher writes the following sentence on the board: La reforma agraria recupera la producción de la tierra para el pueblo. (Agrarian reform recovers the land for the use of the people.) She reads aloud, then the students join her. Discussion ensues as she reminds the class that they are waiting for everyone to get there. I walk around, eavesdropping on the little groups clustered around the tables. Some are discussing the sentence, others are still catching up with each other about what happened during their day. 

After a while, the little classroom is full and dialogue fills every corner. The woman with the baby joins a round table, still swaying as she interjects with her opinions. The teacher reads the sentence again, placing an open palm under each word as she reads it. “La reforma agraria recupera la producción de la tierra para el pueblo.” Some of the students join her, others just listen. Then she asks if anyone has any comments about the sentence. One man jokes, “I didn’t know I’d been robbed until right now!” Other joking comments follow and then more serious observations about Somocismo, about which types of crops are most beneficial. Everyone who wants to speak is given the opportunity. Differing views are expressed but the feeling of mutual respect is always there, modeled by the teacher and followed by the students. 

Soon the teacher leads the class back to the sentence and underlines the word recupera. The class reads it. She breaks it into syllables and pronounces each one, again placing her palm under each syllable as she reads it, re-cu-pe-ra. The class joins her. Next she underlines the syllable re. She makes the sounds of the letter r, gently rolling it off her tongue. 

“What other vowels can we combine with this letter?” she asks the class. The woman with the infant quickly calls out “ru-ru-ru!” The class bursts into laughter as the ru-ru-ru sound is often made by mothers who are trying to coax their babies to sleep. Her baby has just started to make soft, whimpering sounds. 

Ru, ru, ru! Con u, u, u,” the teacher calls back. The formal phonics lesson continues as the new syllables are constructed with the previously introduced consonant and vowels. 

It makes a lot of sense to me to have the students go from understanding the meaning of a sentence and how that message pertains to their lives to breaking down the words into syllables and letters. They understand the power of written language to transmit ideas. To learn to read and write is to harness that power. 

Even after the class is over, the dialogue component of the lesson has a lasting effect. Some of the students linger to chat, eager for the opportunity to share their ideas. The subject of discussion is not limited to the contents of the primer, it only begins there. Individual, community, national, and international concerns are all valid subjects for discussion and collective actions are encouraged. Everyone is expected to exchange viewpoints in a setting that encourages respect, fosters community and promotes praxis, breaking down the separation between theory and practice. 

I have just one gripe. Despite the fact that the ruling party - the FSLN - is extremely popular, the party is too repeatedly mentioned in the school books in comparison with opposition parties, who are rarely (if ever) mentioned at all. I think it’s important to have balance and consider different points of view. The problem is that the coalition of armed forces that opposed Somoza banded together under the name FSLN but after they overthrew him, the coalition disbanded and formed different parties with divergent political and economic ideologies. They all opposed Somoza and that had forced them to work together but once he was gone, the differences between them became evident, so the FSLN of a few years ago is a different entity from the FSLN today. 

Nonetheless, the literacy program is impressively efficient. It has a wonderful success rate and I believe there are many aspects of it which I can implement in my own teaching back home.


In Boaco, a small town south of Managua. The students are obliged to bring their own chairs due to lack of furniture in many schools. 

© 1986 Peter Williams 

Monday, May 11, 2015

4/3/86, Thursday


This morning Adrianna, the youngest of my little Nicaraguan sisters, took me on a trek to a school across town to distribute some of the supplies I collected in the U.S. The school is called Jose Benito Escobar, after a guerrilla combatant who was killed by Somoza’s Guardia here in Esteli. Adrianna told me that Comandante Escobar used to live in the house where our family lives now. We delivered our supplies to some very happy teachers who promised to put them to good use. The school was not yet open, so we didn’t hang out for long. We also knew that we had a long walk back and the sun was already beating down on us. On the way back we stopped for some gaseosas (as carbonated drinks are called here), it was a nice treat for Adrianna. I’m amazed that someone so young knows her way around town. I must learn from her. She never complained about the heat or the fact that our sweaty skin was the perfect surface for the dust to adhere.

When we got home, I made the mistake of postponing my shower in hopes that the water would warm up by early afternoon but it was unexpectedly turned off. Now that the water’s off, I guess I’ll have to stay dusty until tomorrow. There is water rationing here, just like in Managua but I haven’t figured out the dates and my family says it’s not uncommon for it to be turned off without warning.

Paca, looking confident and beautiful 

Later this morning I folded some clothes with my teenage sister Paca while she did the ironing. It was our first time alone together and felt like a perfect opportunity to chat. I noticed that she had some torn magazine pages taped on the wall. Among them was a photo of a woman wearing a gray head scarf and a plain gray work smock; next to it was a page from a fashion magazine featuring a woman with a huge mane of curly blonde hair. The two photos seemed incongruous next to each other, so I asked her about them. She started telling me about her trip to Cuba. She said she was rethinking how she defined beauty and explained that at one point, her wall had been covered with images from magazines of women whose lifestyles had nothing to do with hers, like the one of the woman with blonde hair. They were images from the same magazines I had grown up with, which featured predominately Caucasian women in expensive clothes.

Paca carefully ironed the cuffs on Lissette’s Bermuda shorts, made sure the fold on both legs was even, and continued with her story. “I like their straight hair, but mine has very tight curls.” She twisted a curl between her fingers. “And their skin looks so smooth.”

“They never have mosquito bites!” I added, scratching one of mine.

“Their skin is milky white, like they’ve never gone out in the sun.”

“Maybe they haven’t. It takes a lot of work to look like that.”

“My mom says they alter the photographs to make them look perfect.” 

“They do,” I reassured her. Then Paca dropped a bomb.

“But why is THAT considered perfect?” She pointed at the big-haired blonde. I had never considered that question. I knew the standards were impossible but I never wondered who set them or why certain features were considered beautiful. I was momentarily sent back to my childhood, remembering adults in East L.A. cooing over a child with guerito features. Kids could be ugly as sin but if they had light skin, eyes or hair they would receive heaps of praise. I had never understood it.

Paca finished with Lissette’s shorts, moved on to Francie’s uniform pants and meticulously creased them. Taking the tip of the iron, she gently tapped each pleat with it, pressing love into her family’s clothing, enacting the type of beauty she knows she possesses, the type that is now on her wall - the beauty that comes from a sense of purpose. “When I went to Cuba, I saw women who looked more like me. They were beautiful. They were average working women, not models,” Paca said. “It was my mom’s idea to put up the picture of the factory worker. Now, when I see images like this one,” she gestured to the ultra-thin, airbrushed model, “I realize I can never look like them and I’m starting to understand that that’s okay.”

Seeds for Germination 
Beauty in fashion magazines does not reflect or validate the average working woman, especially if the woman is not Caucasian. Learning to accept an appearance that is seldom validated takes ongoing conscious effort. The pressure intensifies as we get older when not only your ethnicity or body type can be portrayed as unattractive but when the natural process of aging is depicted as something ugly that needs to be avoided or corrected. 

When it comes to the household, Paca is second in command. She organizes the kids to help with the chores when Francie is at work. The whole family pitches in, since Francie is the sole breadwinner and it takes teamwork to keep things running smoothly. Paca cooks most of the meals when Francie is away. Yesterday, she cooked a very strange dinner for us, a big bowl of mashed tubers that looked like purpley-gray mashed potatoes. I’m not sure what it was called. We all ate it even though it was rather bland.

Lissette helps with the laundry

Noticing that I hadn’t eaten much, Lissette took the opportunity to introduce me to posicle. We walked a few blocks to an ordinary looking house with no signage. Lissette knocked and after a few minutes an older woman cracked the door open and peeked at us. “Hay posicle?” Lissette inquired. 

The old woman smiled and opened the door all the way to reveal a waist high freezer. "Si hay,” she replied in a friendly manner. I still wasn’t sure what we were getting. Posicle sounded a lot like Popsicle and the freezer seemed to confirm my suspicions but I was willing to be surprised. I gave Lissette the money and let her order for us. She handed the money to the woman who gave her two plastic sandwich bags with something reddish purple frozen inside. We thanked the woman and said goodbye.

Lissette handed me the posicle. I stared at it. “I’ll show you how to eat it,” she said. She grabbed a corner of the Baggie, squeezed and twisted it to create a sort of handle, then she bit of the opposite corner of the plastic bag and spit it out onto the street. I followed her example. “Now you just suck it out through that corner.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Frozen grape punch,” she said immediately, putting the corner of the bag in her mouth.

“You said it was hard to describe,” I teased.

“Well...I thought I should show you how to eat it,” she smiled. Later that evening, she showed me how to eat banana sorbets.

It’s not always easy finding stuff to snack on, which is trying for someone like me who’s used to grazing all day. It seems like one of the most popular Nicaraguan sayings is no hay (there isn’t any). You walk up to a cafe and they’ll have a chalkboard out front with that day’s offerings, except that as the day progresses, you tend to find no hay handwritten next to many items. Often, they don’t even bother with the no hay. You sit down, thinking you’ll order something that caught your eye and you’re stuck with Gallo Pinto... again! The one thing there is plenty of is sugar. Nicaraguans eat more sugar than even a sweet freak like me can handle. It typically comes in the form of frescos, which are usually just a combination of fruit, sugar and water. My favorite fresco is avena, which is a finely ground oatmeal that is soaked in sugar water and cinnamon, it’s sooooo good!

I wonder if consuming all that fresco makes one’s blood sweeter. Well, at least I know the mosquitos are eating well! If it wasn’t for the mosquito net, I’d have been eaten alive. Just now, as I’ve started to complain about the mosquitos, I spied a visitor in my room. I don’t want to be a baby about this but there’s a big lizard crawling on the wall and I’m scared. I’m going to try to ignore it, maybe it’ll leave soon...hmm, it’s not leaving. I guess I’m going to go read in the other room for a little while. I’ve been lent lots of books and I haven’t had time to read them.

Friday, May 8, 2015

4/2/86, Wednesday

My Nicaraguan Family:
Front row: Paca, Milche, Carelia
Back row: Francie, Lissette, Magda

4/2/86, Wednesday

I wasn't able to shower in Managua and last night it was too late when I finally got to our house in Esteli. Plus, everyone wanted to get to know me and I wanted to talk to them, so I waited. This morning I finally got my shower. It was a chilly experience. The water never got warm so I took about a one minute shower, soaping up my entire body before turning on the cold stream for a frigid rinse. Despite these things and many other inconveniences of living with people at this level of poverty, I’m very glad to be here. It’s not that big a deal to have to do without the luxuries we have back home. Oddly, having to adapt so quickly makes me feel like an alarm clock went off in my body and soul. It’s like my whole being took a cold shower.

Yesterday I was introduced to my Nicaraguan family. It’s an all female household. Five daughters live at home and one lives in Managua. The girls all work together to manage the house until their mom gets home from work.

Adrianna is the youngest of six daughters. She’s quite thin, sweet, playful and soft spoken. She has a wild mane of messy, curly hair. I’m guessing that she’s about 7 years old.

Next is Milche, she is only a little older than Adrianna, she’s quiet, reserved, and very attentive.

Lissette, who picked me up yesterday at the Nica school, is the middle daughter. I find her charming and outgoing... a little rebel.

After that is Paca, she’s just a teenager but she’s cultivated a maternal attitude towards the younger girls and they definitely take direction from her.

Carelia is a beautiful, young high school age lady. She’s not that interested in dealing with her younger sisters, probably because she has a boyfriend named Lenin who Lissette says takes up all of her time. (He already came by to say hello.)

Magda doesn't live at home, she’s the oldest daughter. She’s married and lives in Managua.

My Nicaraguan mother’s name is Francisca Dormus Zea but I heard one of the neighbors call her Francie and I like that better. I mentioned the nickname and she insisted I call her that. She’s in her mid to late thirties, a former guerrilla, with a stern countenance. Yesterday, when she first walked up to greet me she had a serious look on her face but it only took a couple of seconds for it to break into a smile. She apologized for working late and it dawned on me that she was probably just tired. We enjoyed a simple dinner of beans and tortillas and then she and I sat in the living room to talk. She wanted to know everything about me but as I told it, I found my story to be rather dull. I wanted to hear her story and after awhile she shared it.

Francie is a strong, well-informed, intelligent woman with incredible vitality. She’s part of a women’s military reserve battalion but a lot of her time is spent doing what she calls social work. I don’t know if she’s an actual social worker but it sounds like she’s mostly concerned with the welfare of women, making sure their needs and interests are addressed. As I listened to her, I could tell that she cares deeply about making sure that women feel involved and participate in the revolution.

Alice, Lenin and Francie

“It would be very easy for women to fall back into traditional roles,” she tells me. “Many of the women in Esteli were active in trying to overthrow Somoza but to different degrees and in
different ways. For those of us who were integrated in the struggle, it allowed us to see ourselves in a new way. During the seventies, women combatientes were risking their lives, the same as the men soldiers. We thought of ourselves as equals but even though we were doing the same things they were doing, we still had to put up with machismo from other soldiers, husbands, brothers...”

Her voiced trailed off and I wondered if she was remembering a particular macho comment that might have wounded her. Francie sat quietly in front of me, dressed in an olive drab shirt and pants. Her legs were spread open in front of her in a pose that I had always associated with men, her body relaxed and open, completely in control of her presence and ready to act at any moment. There was a hardness to her look but a quality of gentleness in her eyes. I studied her face, noticing her earrings and a hint of lipstick. I saw a woman for whom strength and femininity were whatever she wanted them to be. She gazed off into the distance for a minute, temporarily lost in thought.

I said nothing to break the silence. Finally, she sighed and smiled at me. I wanted to know more about this matriarch but I instinctively knew not to pry.

My Nicaraguan family has been very involved (or integrated, as they say here) in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary movements. They are a rich source of history and firsthand information. Even the house we’re living in seems to have a story to tell. It was used as a Sandinista headquarters and some of the leaders lived here while in Esteli. We were still seated in the living room when I happened to look at the painting that was hanging behind Francie’s head. It seemed religious at first glance but there was something off about it.

“Is that a picture of Jesus?” I asked, standing to take a closer look. The lean, dark-skinned, bearded man in the painting had a rifle dangling by his side but there was a look of peace emanating from his eyes and he appeared to have a bright amber halo over his head.

Francie laughed. “In Nicaragua, even Jesus carries a rifle.”

Jesus con fusil

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

4/1/86, Tuesday

4/1/86, Tuesday

Welcome to the Norma.

After rounding up the Escuela Nica students and volunteers at the airport, the school representative dropped us off at a place called Hospedaje Norma, a hostel like no hostel I've ever been to. It looked like someone just gathered up pieces of plywood and slapped them together to create partitions over a dirt floor. Each “dormitory” contained three to six cots, a bare light bulb with a pull string to turn it on and off and nothing else.

Inside Hospedaje Norma
Sanitary facilities are minimal, as is access to electricity, even water is limited. I was surprised and somewhat disturbed to find that there was only one aluminum tumbler set atop a water jug for everyone in the hostel to drink from and that it was barely rinsed between users because water is too scarce to waste on rinsing. Water in that part of Managua is turned off two days a week (Mondays and Thursdays) in an effort to conserve it, so a much-needed shower after the long, sticky flight was out of the question because there was no running water last night.

Another surprise is that there is no toilet paper to be found anywhere or at any price. I was told, perhaps in jest, that La Prensa (the opposition’s newspaper) usually ends up replacing it in the bathrooms. I don’t know if that’s what I've been using but the squares of newspaper can’t be flushed, because they won’t dissolve as easily as toilet paper so they must be thrown in a tin can located right next to the toilet, making for a terrible smell coming from the latrines. The first time I used the toilet, I automatically threw my paper into the bowl after wiping, then panicked and scooped it out with my bare hands for fear of creating plumbing problems for the whole neighborhood. To top that off, I couldn't even wash my hands properly. The water that’s available for washing our hands is no more than a trickle from a community jug and there was no soap anywhere, so I was left feeling dirtier than ever.

The "good" toilet (with a seat) at Hospedaje Norma. 
In the morning we headed out to Esteli, about two hours north of Managua. We drove through the countryside which was quite a contrast with the city. It was green, lush and pristine – nature again proving its superiority over the man-made. We went straight to the Nica school where we would have the opportunity to meet the school staff, get to know our fellow students and later that afternoon, there would be a small ceremony to introduce us to our host families.

The introductory ceremony was arranged so that we would feel as comfortable as possible with families who would essentially be adopting us for the next month or so. I was greeted by my “new” little sister Lissette, a young girl with close-cropped hair and jovial, mischievous eyes. She has beautiful dark skin and a beaming smile. She greeted me warmly and apologized for the fact that her mother couldn't be there to welcome me.


Lissette was pleasantly surprised that I was not one of the students who had come to study Spanish, my fluency immediately set her at ease and she began to joke with me. I’m so glad they sent her, I can’t think of a more welcoming person. We walked back to our house and Lissette insisted on pulling my wheeled suitcase through the cobblestone streets of Esteli. Along the way she asked questions and pointed out places of interest. By coincidence, we happen to have the same interest: sweets!

“There’s a store near your school that sells snacks and ice cream,” she informed me.

“Sometimes they have banana splits. Have you ever had a banana split?”

“Yes,” I started to say but she interrupted me.

“They take guineo and cut it in half and then they put ice cream in the middle...” she proceeded with her enthusiastic description but I was still back at guineo.

“What is guineo?” I asked.

“You don’t know guineo? It’s a fruit that’s long and yellow and it tastes sweet and creamy...”

“We call that platano, or banana in English.”

“Oh, so you've had it before?” she asked, crestfallen that she wasn't initiating me into the delights of an unfamiliar fruit.

“Yes, but I wouldn't mind having one with you,” I said, tossing her a side glance. Her smile came back.

We’d gone about five blocks when I noticed Lissette struggling with the heavy suitcase so I asked for a turn pulling it. She resisted but finally gave in, shrugging her shoulders and handing me the handle reluctantly, as though doing me a favor. I became acutely aware of how many notebooks, crayons, pencils, markers, rulers and erasers were in the overstuffed bag and I worried that one of the two little wheels would give and break off. Now that her hands were free, Lissette switched into full tourist guide mode, pointing out places of interest to her.

“That place makes posicle, have you ever had posicle?” she asked.

“No, what is it?”

“Oh, it’s hard to describe, I’ll have to bring you back so you can taste it.” She gave me the smile of a kid about to put her hand in a cookie jar.

‘Very clever,’ I thought to myself, happy to have an accomplice. A little further down the road, we passed a fresh juice bar which sells freshly squeezed fruit drinks they call frescos, along with pastries. Lissette’s face was full of expression as she described her favorite treats. We were going to get along just fine.

Fun Size History: Banana Republic

Speaking of bananas, did you know that the banana was introduced to the United States in 1870? They were brought over from Jamaica and sold in Boston at a 1000% profit. The delicious, nutritious food soon grew in popularity, in part for its yumminess but also because of its cheap price. One could buy a dozen bananas for the price of two apples.

Before long, businessmen found that bananas became even more profitable when grown in countries where they could buy large plots of fertile land, clear them for banana plantations and then hire the now-landless farmers to work for near-slave wages.

A trio of companies, including the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands) grew rich and powerful by exporting the bananas back to the United States for enormous profits. They formed mutually beneficial alliances with wealthy landowners in the host countries. They exerted enormous control over the governments of Central American countries and utilized the power of the U.S. military and C.I.A. to squash any attempted rebellions or uprisings. In 1954, the democratically elected president of Guatemala was deposed by the C.I.A. in a 
coup d’état at the request of the United Fruit Company. In Honduras, the United Fruit Company was known as El Pulpo - the octopus - because it had so many far-reaching military/political tentacles.

The term Banana Republic was coined to describe a fictional country but it is widely believed that Honduras provided the inspiration for it. Today the term is used to describe a small, politically unstable country whose government is concerned with growing the economy of a foreign or corporate entity, rather than the welfare of its own citizens.

And you thought Banana Republic was just a clothing company.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Icon Key, 3/30/86 & 3/31/86

Icon Key

I use the following icons in this book; here’s what they mean.

Fuck This! Wrong thinking, bad ideas.

Seeds for Germination: Ideas that penetrated my subconscious and later had an impact on my life.

Upon Reflection: Seeing my actions from a distance has helped me gain a clearer understanding of what was happening in different situations.

Fun Size History: A quick overview meant to aid in the understanding of the diary.

3/30/86, Sunday

The flight boarded late but we’re finally on the plane. At last on my way to Nicaragua! I’m so excited that even though almost everyone on the plane is sleeping I can’t keep my eyelids shut. It’s almost 1:00am and I’m really tired but I can’t settle down.

A few minutes ago I put my head back and closed my eyes trying to relax and doze but I heard the two men behind me talking. I know it’s rude to listen but their conversation drew me in. I heard an inquisitive traveler ask his neighbor where he was heading.

“I’m catching a connecting flight down to Central America,” the neighbor replied. 

I, too was catching a connecting flight to Central America, so his response piqued my interest. I was tempted to turn around and make friends with him right away. Maybe he was going to the Nica school, too! Thank god for the little bit of impulse control that kept me from doing that. The inquisitive traveler continued asking questions.

“What takes you to Central America?”

“I’m on assignment. We’re doing some training down there in Honduras and Nicaragua.”

I realized that the man behind me was going to work with the Contras. I was on my way to help the Sandinistas, he was on his way to train their killers.

3/31/86, Monday

On the flight from Houston to Nicaragua I finally dozed a bit but I never really fell asleep, so I arrived in Managua groggy, somewhat dazed, and sticky after a passenger spilled her orange juice on me. I hate being sticky.

Managua airport is tiny, the size of a small town airport in the U.S. but it was teeming with soldiers, all carrying automatic rifles. I was already disoriented and this was completely intimidating to me. I’m not used to being interrogated by armed soldiers. It snapped me into the reality of this place. This is a country at war.

I walked out into the waiting area hoping to see a representative from the school but nobody was there. I walked all over the small airport but I couldn't find any Escuela Nica personnel and after awhile I started to worry that the whole school for internationalists was one big scam and that now I’d be stranded in a foreign country where I didn't know a soul.

I sat on a bench, waiting and hoping someone would show up. I felt like I was dreaming but I started to plan what I would do if I had to make it work on my own. I figured I could grab a taxi and get myself to a hotel and then try to sort it out. Luckily, the rep from Escuela Nica finally did show up. He was half an hour late but I was so happy to see him that I didn't care!

Now I’m suffering from serious culture shock. Driving through Managua for the first time really makes me feel as though I haven’t seen much of the world. I've been to Europe and I've traveled all over Mexico but only as a tourist going to museums or historical sites...not like this. This is not a place for tourists. 

Everywhere you look there are battle scars: the skeletons of bombed buildings, facades left standing over the ruins of old factories, warehouses and office buildings that have been reduced to piles of rubble. Nothing is new, everything looks ancient or on the verge of breaking down. Sidewalks crowded with people, waiting to catch a ride on buses already groaning under the burden of even more people hanging off the sides and riding on top. 
Hitchhikers trying to catch a ride on military trucks. And poverty everywhere.