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.