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?”