Consorting with the Enemy
By Elise Witt
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1985, pp. 15-21
February 3. Miami, the cultural intermediary. Tropical vegetation, flowering bushes in February. Sultry air and a heavy, full moon. Spanish signs on Cuban stores, Spanish being spoken. We share a Cuban seafood meal by the Miami River.
In the bilingual airport we try out the Spanish we have studied the last few months. The Aeronica gate and our flight are filled mostly with Nicaraguans. Three North Americans are aboard to meet a cotton brigade. There are two students from Boston and California and an older Mexican American woman who tells us she grew up picking cotton. “Going to Nicaragua to help with their harvest is the least I can do to lend support,” she says.
After two hours of flight, someone spots land. At the moment of arrival in Managua a huge space within me lights up.
February 4. We get to know our hosts at the Managua Center for Popular Culture (CPC). The country wide CPC’s are community arts centers which will serve as our sponsors in each town we visit on our sixteen-day tour. We meet with Arelhy Suarez, head of International Cultural Exchange, and Cleopatra and Janet, staff members at the CPC National Office.
With Cleopatra, we eat our first Nicaraguan lunch. Tortillas, salad, including pickled cucumbers, carrots and squash, plantains, beans with cream–my two favorites–and a huge pile of queso fresco–fresh, white cheese, similar to that my father makes out of goat’s milk in North Carolina.
After lunch, we decide on a walking tour of Managua. Straight out from the Hotel Intercontinental–the center for visiting foreign “dignitaries”–we wander through blocks of empty grass and concrete, vestiges of the 1972 earthquake and Somoza’s bombs. Skeletons of buildings are everywhere. Populated neighborhoods ring a vast, empty, city center. Somoza pocketed most of the world-donated relief funds after the earthquake.
The Palacio Nacional is now the Palacio de La Revolucion. At the Plaza Carlos Fonseca Amador the stone reads, “His body is dead, but his spirit lives on in every Nicarguan.” Fonseca, a hero of the revolution, founded the Sandinsta party.
The city of Managua is quiet on this first day of our visit. People have gone to the countryside to pick coffee. The Ministry of Culture is in the mountains, lending a hand.
We walk to the Plaza Park, an outdoor amphitheater. On Election Day, November 2, 1984, all of Managua gathered here for a fiesta. The great cathedral in the middle of Managua was also ruined by the tremor of the earthquake, but the frame still stands and we climb to look over the sanctuary and catch another view of the city.
From the cathedral we ride the bus. It is as crowded as everyone told us buses would be. We lose Mary, Rick and Steve when we get off. They have to ride a stop further before they can make their way to the back door and step out.
Walls are covered with folk art and graffiti. And there are the billboards: “In Construction Is the Solution.” “In Five Years We Have Built 1500 New Schools. This Is What We Are Defending.” “After the First Step We Will Never Stop Walking.”
February 5. We leave Managua for the countryside in a minibus driven by the CPC’s Don Felix. In sight of a large lake and volcanos, one still smoking, we head northwest toward Leon. Beside the road, trees hang with coconuts, mangos, grapefruit.
We are met in the university town of Leon by Carlos Sanchez, the city’s CPC director. The Leon CPC is the former home of a rich somocista who has fled the country. A huge garden is surrounded by terraces. Much of the house is roofless and unused but the core of the CPC is comfortable and well kept. In the library I notice technical books for workers and a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Spanish. Children come every afternoon for folk dancing lessons. Many people use the center for rehearsing, playing music, painting, and as a gathering place.
CPC worker Enrique Sandoval takes my guitar and shows me a new song: “La Consigna,” which tells about the struggles the Nicaraguans have gone through before and since the triumph in 1979. It’s a singable song that everybody in the country seems to know.
Enrique says he has a guitar but no strings. I had heard that there was a shortage of strings-indeed of almost any kind of musical supplies. Before leaving Atlanta I had gotten a donation from GHS Guitar String Company in Michigan, and now Enrique has a new set. Together, we play and sing “Guantanamera” by the Cuban, Jose Marti, and “Flor de Pino,” a Nicaraguan song about Sandino.
Late in the afternoon we walk over to a Leon bank where the workers are sitting in class listening to a professor of literature from the University. At first I don’t understand a word. Slowly, the Spanish starts making sense. The professor is telling of Ruben Dario, the poet laureate of Nicaragua who gave a new identity to Nicaraguan literature and thought. “Hispanic culture must not be swallowed up by English culture. The two must live side by side in the Americas.”
The bank employees have been at work all day and, afterwards, like Nicaraguans throughout the country, they’ve sat through a class. Nonetheless, they receive us enthusiastically.
We start with “Yo Solo Quiero” which is upbeat and carries a message of international solidarity.
At last we are making music and our sense of purpose and belonging seem clearer. This is our first concert in Nicaragua. The introduction of the songs, in Spanish, begins to flow. The audience, at first quiet, becomes warm and responsive.
The program is balanced between our North American songs–particularly lively jazz tunes–and our international repertoire: “Bella Ciao,” a revolutionary Italian song which is understandable in Spanish, and “Paidu Vyidu,” a Russian acapella love ballad. We end with “Flor de Pino” which we don’t know well yet, but which we know means much to our audience.
The best part of the concert comes afterward. People step up to talk, at first shyly, hesitantly, then more enthusias-
tically. A half-dozen conversations jumble together. A group of five bank workers take up where Enrique had left off in leaching me “La Consigna.”
Afterwards, we walk out of town to the University where we share the women’s dorm with students who are there. They rise at four in the morning to pick cotton until noon, then return for school work all afternoon.
February 6. George King has the video equipment out today and is shooting a walking tour of Leon led by Enrique. Since George asks him to repeat explanations and descriptions several times, I’m really understanding most of what Enrique is saying about Leon’s history and its importance during the revolution as the center of the student movement. He shows us the Cathedral, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the prison of the Somoza guards.
We walk in the cells where barbed wire hangs in vines through the open roof. Here, prisoners were packed a hundred to a cell. Tomas Borge, now one of the leaders of the government, was held in such a cell for six and a half years.
That afternoon, aboard a truck used for hauling crops, Small Family Orchestra and a group of young folk dancers ride to where the students are picking cotton. Along the way we see parakeets and small, bright yellow birds called gorriones sitting in orange, flowering trees. “Zopilotes” (turkey buzzards) float over us for several minutes, following the truck. We pass chacara seca (dry banana), a small group of houses that belonged to a somocista, but is now a state farm.
Oscar, the leader of the student volunteers, asks me if I know “El Arado” (“The Plow”) by Victor Jara. We begin to sing it together on the bumpy, dirt road to the cotton plantation at Miramar.
At Miramar young students who have come from the fields sit around us as we rehearse. Five lie in a hammock–which later breaks with their weight. Others stretch out on the ground. They clap and sing along.
We try out “El Arado,” then “Quincho Barrilete,” a song about a ten-year-old boy, killed in the revolution. Sitting in front of me is a boy who knows all the words.
At the evening concert, we share the stage with the wide-skirted folk dance group who came with us from Leon. We sing a Carter Family song and “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” the sound echoing over the audience and against a volcano up into the starry sky.
February 7 . Before we leave the dorm this morning, Maribel, one of the students gives me a red and black Sandinista scarf which she sewed herself, then ironed carefully. I trade her a Photosouth baseball cap from Atlanta.
We drive from Leon to Granada.
At an evening concert at Estado Mayor we are proceeded by a solo singer who sings in a rich full voice the new songs of Nicaragua. Two folk dancers and a comedian, Jose Senteno, follow. Then we sing. At the end we are given a copy of The Living Thoughts of Sandino and a kiss from the companero who presents it to us. Before the bus takes us home we sit around and share American songs–North, South and Central.
February 8. We practice an Appalachian spiritual, “Bright Morning Star.” An Indian word in the Nahualt language calls the morning star Nixtayolero, after the corn (nixtayol) tortillas are made from. So we have translated “Bright Morning Star” into Spanish. The harmonies fill up the huge room, the high ceilings, the balcony of the Granada CPC-a former social club for the rich.
Walking down the street in Granada, we hear that a young doctor from that city at work in the north of the country has been killed by contras only hours before. Flags in the city go to half mast.
In the afternoon we ride by open jeep to Jinotepe, to celebrate the return of brigades of coffee and cotton pickers. Nearly four thousand student-aged brigadistas, just arrived, are gathered on the town square. Each brigade has its own name and group spirit and there are prizes for the best pickers. There is a parade and fireworks, and children everywhere.
Knapsacks are piled on the sidewalks and coffee beans are being tossed into the air. A truck passes by decorated
with stalks of cotton. Between speeches by various brigidistas, we are introduced, the norteamericanos. After we sing and play there are more speeches. We sit and talk with a group of children. These ten and eleven year olds tell us about studying Spanish, English, history, natural science, mathematics, music and drawing in their school. They all have on red and black scarves. One of them, Karen, gives me the button that she earned during the Literacy Campaign. I give her a figurine of a horse that I have from Germany in my guitar case.
On the way back to Granada we stop at a fiesta where a band from the Atlantic Coast, Dimencion Costena is playing. An eight man group, they play music from the black-Creole, Atlantic Coast culture of Nicaragua–a mix of reggae and calypso. This is a band that we hope to bring to the US as the other half of our cultural exchange.
February 9. As we drive to the mountain town of Boaco, we are joined by our new guide, Cruz, from Rivas in the south of Nicaragua. Even in the mountains, we are traveling through palm trees and tropical vegetation.
The microbus is having problems carrying a fifty-five gallon drum of gas, five musicians with instruments, a video producer with three packs of gear and from three to fifteen Nicaraguans. On several of the hills, we get out and push.
our evening performance is at the movie theater of Boaco, where we’ve replaced the evening’s feature film. It’s the first full length concert we’ve done since the one for the bank workers. We include many Spanish songs as well as our new Southern songs. The faces in the audience give back a lot and many mouths are singing the Spanish words. At the end, after “Flor de Pino,” we invite the audience to come and talk, ask questions, offer criticism. We are quickly surrounded.
A man with a sleeping daughter draped across his shoulder asks many questions. He is a schoolteacher who, with his students, is collecting regional history and folklore.
“What do the people in the United States think of Nicaragua?,” he asks. “What news do they receive?” “Upon your return, you must speak at every concert you play, with every person you talk with, about what we are trying to do here. We want peace and the freedom to develop our lives and our own history. We feel a kinship with the people of the US and want to maintain bonds of friendship, not be separated by misunderstanding.”
February 10. Norman, a twenty-three year old architecture student who speaks beautiful English that he learned in Nicaraguan schools tells me, “Someday I would like to travel to visit the United States and many other countries. But who knows when that will be possible. Who knows if that will ever be possible.”
Norman is in the middle of his university studies. But he has to wait a year, two years. For now, he must pick cotton and coffee and go to the mountains to protect schools, hospitals and towns from contra attacks. “Please tell your people, ” he says, “that we want to continue our development as a young country.”
By the time we left Nicaragua, it felt like everyone we met had lost a relative or a best friend, either during the revolution or fighting the contras.
“At least one student from every classroom has fallen,” says Norman. “When you hear that the three most promising students in your class have been killed, what else can you do but step forward and take their place? When a child sees his parents killed by the contras, what else can he do but join the fight himself, even though he is ‘too young.’ They put these children in service as cooks or other non-combatant duties, but they usually wind up in combat by choice.”
February 11. We have breakfast with Eunice, Nelly, Roberto and the other CPC workers who have been traveling with us. My sister Mary is giving Mateo a crash course in reading music. Conversations buzz around the table.
Abel, the regional director of the CPC’s in the mountains, thanks us for our visit with a brief speech and presents each of us with a copy of a book by Ahmed Campos, a young poet, a friend who was killed in the early 1980s by the contras. With a heartfelt speech, I thank them for the three days that we have shared.
A long bus drive takes us to Matagalpa, into the northern coffee-growing mountains of Nicaragua, near the combat zone.
At the Matagalpa CPC we meet Jose Manuel Chamorro Rios. Forty-eight years old, Chamorro has six children. In our presence, he rarely speaks without guitar accompaniment. It seems there is no music he cannot play. He begins with a beautiful Nicaraguan folk melody, then blithely changes to an intricate “As Time Goes By,” followed by a B.
B. King tune, then punctuates his last sentence with a Flamenco hot lick. Students are coming in and out, asking advice, playing duets with Chamorro.
Although he is one of the best players I’ve met anywhere, he is playing a beat-up guitar. Many of his students come in with instruments missing strings, machine heads, screws and other parts. We promise to send parts and art supplies to the CPC’s we visit.
We sleep at the National Training School for Theater Instructors. There were supposed to be twenty-three people in this, the first, class, but only twelve are here now. The others are away in the military.
February 12. In the evening we play a concert at a small art gallery where there is a show of Nicaraguan paintings. People wander in from the streets, look at the paintings and hear some of our quieter songs.
We return to the theater school and stay up talking with the students. “Every night I dream of a white devil who flies over and swoops down attacking me,” begins Oscar, who is studying to be a theater instructor. “I have a lot of trouble sleeping. I was on the front for a year. It has made me very nervous. For that year I could not eat hot food because that would have required a fire. We lived on canned milk and had to be on our guard every minute. You would enter a home or school that had been attacked by the contras . . . young children killed and mutilated. You were there, but you really didn’t see, you couldn’t bear it.”
We trade songs with the students. Beth and I sing Joyce Brookshire’s “Whatever Became of Me?: Ballad of Cabbage town,” and Tim Krekel’s Kentucky love song “In My Heart.” A Bolivian student sings a ballad from his country, then one of the wilder students cranks up the favorite “All the Nations Like Bananas.” Soon, we’re all singing and dancing.
February 13. We spend the day at the farm of the theater collective, Nixtayolero, outside Matagalpa. Alan Bolt, the director of Nixtayolero, is also the director of the Nicaraguan national theater. “People come to this farm,” he says, “from all over the country to participate in theater workshops. We make plays with them which deal with community problems. And while they are here, they learn to eat vegetables.”
The rice, beans and corn which make up much of the Nicaraguan diet are full of protein but lack necessary vitamins and minerals. Bolt’s collective uses theater to teach nutrition. Nixtayolero’s farm, besides growing grapefruit, oranges, bananas and coffee, has introduced many new vegetables into the familiar agriculture.
That night we play a concert in town on the recreation square. People are lined up on the edges at first, but as we play, they move in closer. Afterwards I sit and talk with three girls named Maria. They sing a song they’ve learned in school. It’s one I learned in German as a child, “Ach du lieber Augustin.” My friends are your friends. Cuando somos juntas me sientofeliz.
February 14. The Matagalpa CPC is organizing the festivities for the town’s 123rd birthday party. This evening there is to be a street dance. Claudia and Cruz have spent the afternoon teaching us several Nicaraguan folk dance steps and showing us how to salsa.
At the dance two bands play on opposite ends of the main street. We wander between the bands and the waves of dancers.
I’m dancing with Chamorro’s son Ernesto and Orfilia, one of the workers from the Managua CPC who has come up to pick coffee. As we approach, each band seems to be playing “Acarizieme,” a Latin pop song that we have heard often on the radio.
As a slight drizzle falls we move to sit on the steps under the roof of a little house that looks out onto the festival. The door is wide open and we can see several generations of a family inside. They invite us in for coffee and bring out their photos. Their grandmother has 120 grandchildren.
February 15. We go to San Ramon to pick coffee. As we arrive, food is being prepared to take to the pickers. We ride in a truck piled high with tortillas, enormous pots of beans, coffee and milk.
The coffee bushes grow on steep slopes and I feel I could fall straight down. I wear the basket tied around my waist and peel the beans off the branches. I prop my feet against the trunk of the tree and lean against the slope of the mountain. Usually only the red beans are picked, which means going through the trees on several different days.
“Today we’ve started picking every bean-from the greenest to the most rotten,” explains Marcia, a volunteer worker from Canada. “A coffee picker was killed by contras five kilometers away last week,” she says, “and then, day before yesterday, a Honduran cigarette package was found just two kilometers away. So we’re getting everything we can.”
Three days later we read in the newspaper that workers and children had been killed three kilometers from that farm. It was now a war zone.
February 16. We return to Managua, Nicaragua’s city, and feel the trip almost over.
That evening Beth and I attend the Misa Campesina at the church of Santa Maria de los Angeles. The church was destroyed in the earthquake and rebuilt by the community. Every panel of its octagonal shape is painted with a mural expressive of Nicaragua’s history. The mural in the front arches up over the altar set up in the middle of the church. The people sit all the way around.
The priest wears a black cassock with a brightly colored, woven, Latin American band around his neck. He directs a small group of musicians near the altar and leads the singing, moving easily around the church. Over six hundred people are here tonight.
The Misa Campesina was written by Carlos Mejia Godoy. It contains some of Godoy’s own songs as well as traditional Nicaraguan melodies. The mass is interspersed with speaking and celebrants’ rising to talk.
This evening the mass is also a funeral service for a young boy killed by the contras only two days earlier. The mother of the boy gets up to speak. In tears her words flow forth. Someone plays a tape of the son before he went to combat. He speaks of his dedication to the church, to the
cause of Nicaragua, to the people of his family and his neighborhood.
Beth and I are asked to sing. We choose John McCutcheon’s “No Mas, No More,” a song that insists that the people of the world can no longer be separated by our governments’ economic and political interests. As I sing, I look around the church and see faces from Scandinavia, Europe, from the Orient, from Africa and all the Americas.
It is our last night in Nicaragua.
“I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, find that the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”-From the executive order of May 1, 1985.
The Reagan Administration’s Mayday embargo on US-Nicaraguan trade was accompanied by an even more belligerent action: an ordered end to direct travel between the two nations.
By closing US ports and airfields to Nicaraguan ships and planes, the Administration diminishes the opportunities and makes the means more difficult for US citizens and Nicaraguans to visit each other. Reagan’s executive order seeks to control and shape public perceptions, knowledge and discussion about Nicaraguan life and the Sandinista government. Beyond this, the Administration’s unilateral actions take us a step backward from any ideal of unrestricted travel across international borders. In this instance, Nicaragua becomes the more open, welcoming society.
Prior to Reagan’s measures of May 1, many North Americans of varying political persuasions had traveled to Nicaragua and returned with views and interpretations of everyday life and national spirit in that country which consistently contradicted official US pronouncements. Among the passengers aboard an Aeronica Airlines flight from Miami to Managua one day in February were the five members of an Atlanta musical troupe–Elise Witt and the Small Family Orchestra, on their way for two weeks of performances throughout Nicaragua. Accompanying the group, camera-ready, was independent video producer George King. Excerpts from Elise Witt’s journal of the trip (printed below) suggest the sort of personal cultural exchange that the embargo has now taken away–as have other, related, actions such as the recent denial of a US entry visa to Nicaragua’s Minister of Culture, the poet Ernesto Cardenal.–AT